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12 Dec 2002 : Column 425—continued

Mr. Paice: Should not another factor be taken into account in dealing with regulations: the question of how the principles that they involve, many of which stem from European decisions, are being applied by other European Union member states? There is ample evidence to suggest that many regulations that are, to use the jargon, gold-plated in this country are given cursory attention in other European countries. Should we not ensure in future that, before implementing a measure in this country, we see exactly what is happening in the countries with which we must compete?

Mr. Lidington: As my hon. Friend says, we certainly need to keep a sharp eye on what is going on in the rest of Europe, where other countries' producers are competing with our own. I also hear from the agricultural sector of this country, however, that even when regulations are applied equally throughout the EU, there is often a difference of culture in their application. On the continent, the inspector will ask the farmer, XHow can we work with you to ensure that you can comply with the new law and operate a successful and profitable business?" In Britain, however, the attitude tends to be one of us and them, and the farmer perceives that the regulations dumped on his desk in a massive folder or as part of a lengthy e-mail contain the implicit threat that if he steps the slightest bit out of line, the authorities will be down on him like a ton of bricks. The House of Lords European Union Committee

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suggested ways in which we could try to move on from such a culture, which is currently getting in the way of the profitable operation of businesses.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lidington: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I should like to move on.

On the environment, as with agriculture, there is a massive gap between the rhetoric of Ministers and the Government's record in practice. Ministers have set ambitious targets for the United Kingdom on carbon emissions, yet emissions have increased in each of the past two years. On recycling, we have seen not only the setting of fine targets, but enthusiasm in the Government to sign up to strict new European legislation. We now find, however, that a quarter of local authorities say that they will not be able to meet their recycling targets for 2005. There is no Government plan to deal with the imminent reduction in the number of sites for hazardous waste disposal, and the disastrous mishandling of the new rules on fridges and freezers has placed enormous financial burdens on local authorities.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): On refrigerators, does my hon. Friend recall the Minister for the Environment saying that, because of the cost to local authorities of recycling responsibilities, the Government would pay compensation in relation to such new regulations? Is he aware that in the county of Devon, however, we have just heard that there will be a shortfall next year of more than #600,000? That will be the cost to the taxpayer of picking up the tab for Government underfunding on refrigerators alone.

Mr. Lidington: I am afraid that council tax payers in my hon. Friend's constituency are going to be landed with the bill for the Government's inability to understand what the new European legislation they have supported means in practice. I hope that her constituents will know exactly where to place the blame for that increase in their council tax bills.

Mr. Martlew: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman has already had one go.

We have had our fill of ministerial visions, strategy papers and targets.

Margaret Beckett: I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. He has made many comments about regulation and so on, and I share his view that it is right that we should become involved in discussions at an early stage. He has been talking a lot about the impact of regulation and how badly it has been handled, but it is my understanding that the regulations that are causing farmers greatest distress and concern are those on nitrate-vulnerable zones, which were introduced in 1991 by the then Conservative Government and have created problems in agriculture that far outstrip—

Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend was talking about fridges.

Margaret Beckett: Yes, I know. There is no comparison between the impact on the community of

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the fridges regulations and that of the nitrate-vulnerable zones regulations. The fridges regulations pale into insignificance in that regard, so a little more recognition from the hon. Gentleman of that widespread problem would be welcome.

Mr. Lidington: I am astonished that the right hon. Lady chooses to mount a defence of the Government's record on the basis of their approach to nitrate-vulnerable zones. The reason why we have to contend with such an oppressive regime on NVZs is that her Government failed even to enter a defence at the European Court of Justice. The judgment was made against them because they simply failed to argue a case.

Mr. Paice: Has my hon. Friend had a chance to see one of the documents published this morning, in which the Government's own figures show that nitrate concentrations in our rivers have fallen over the past seven years? Therefore, the justification for a countrywide NVZ simply does not exist. Most regions have seen a reduction of nitrates in their rivers. We should concentrate on the areas where the problem has not been resolved.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend makes his point well.

The credibility of the Government with farmers and environmentalists alike is in shreds, because they have repeatedly failed to make good the promises that they were so free in making. That is why the House should reject their complacent motion.

2.17 pm

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) began his speech by commenting on the motion. I think that he called it self-congratulatory, but I disagree with that view and with a number of the points that he made. I would describe the motion in different terms, as I believe that it is ambitious in substance, scope and scale, and deals with national and international issues that are highly complex and very difficult. In that context, I shall confine my remarks to a narrower picture, as I want to deal with British agriculture and rural communities, and the British countryside. That is enough for one afternoon, as there are plenty of problems for us to solve.

The countryside is not static. One of the issues that is currently around in the countryside is the cry XListen to us", which often means XListen to us: we don't want to change." That is based on a false perception. The countryside has always changed and it will always have to change to survive. If we want a living and working countryside, we must have a farming industry and a countryside that have the ability to take the challenge and make the change. It is how we manage that change that is so important.

There is no doubt in my mind that the farming sector is in crisis. After a long period, farming incomes are beginning to rise.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that with 15,000 fewer farmers left in the industry in recent times, there will be fewer people to face the challenge and make the change?

Paddy Tipping: There are fewer farmers to face the challenge and to make the change. The prospects are still

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difficult. I believe that more people will leave the industry before the change occurs. Farming is in crisis. There has been a period of prolonged difficulty that has been driven by low commodity prices and by a strong pound. The difficulty has been compounded by BSE and the foot and mouth outbreak. These things brought a crisis in public confidence about the food that is available to us.

Mr. Curry: Given the economic and statistical analysis that has been produced today, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the trend that he has identified in British farming is the trend Europe wide? The decline in farmers and in farm holdings is happening throughout the European Union, very much for the same reasons. I am sure that our debate could be reproduced in any national parliament in the EU on very much same terms.

Paddy Tipping: I agree entirely with that. International pressures, the way the world has changed and the issues that the Secretary of State has talked about in the international setting will drive the trend even further. However, more locally at a national level, the tragedy of foot and mouth disease has been a trigger or catalyst for change. I think that following the outbreak there has been a recognition throughout the farming sector that things cannot stay as they are and that we must change. The Curry report on the future of food and farming, which was published almost a year ago, has received some criticism. However, by and large there is a consensus that it is the way forward. It is important to praise Sir Don and to acknowledge that many of the points made in this morning's statement on the strategy for sustainable food and farming come straight from his report.

I broadly support that way forward. However, my major and real concern is the passage of time. It is more than 18 months since we were faced with foot and mouth disease. Although there has been consensus for change, I have a feeling that people are slipping back into the bad old ways. Many people decided to come out of livestock farming after foot and mouth, but farmers have begun to restock and to turn to the old family traditions. The strategy that has been announced this morning is, I hope, an agenda for action.

I agree with the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) that it is important quickly to make more progress. Much can be praised in the statement, but we need to consider things that were left out. I think that there is a strong feeling throughout the House that we should consider non-food crops, especially biofuels and biomass. I am disappointed that we do not have more concrete proposals in that area in the strategy that has been set out. I know that that is not entirely within the gift of my right hon. Friend. Treasury incentives will drive things forward. I am mindful of the fact that excise duty on biodiesel has fallen, as it has on bioethanol. However, it has not yet reached the level that will take the industry forward and provide a valuable and secure crop for farmers.

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