Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12 Dec 2002 : Column 469—continued

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I do not want the hon. Gentleman's remarks about my former ministerial colleague in the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to pass unchallenged. The hon. Gentleman was on the Opposition Front Bench in that period and he will remember that there was much praise for my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) for the way in which he handled the Department in the crisis. That crisis was unprecedented, as independent reports have recognised, but it was brought under control within the same time scale as the much smaller 1967 outbreak and it did not restart, unlike the 1967 outbreak.

12 Dec 2002 : Column 470

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made it clear quite openly that mistakes were made in handling a crisis on that scale. We are not trying to pretend that they did not occur—so, in that sense, there is no lack of humility. The hon. Gentleman is very fair-minded, but his remarks about my right hon. Friend the former Minister at MAFF were unfair.

Mr. Paice: I want to emphasise that I hold no grudge or grievance against the former Minister. I have immense time and respect for him. I like him very much. I do not want anyone to be under a misapprehension. In that respect, my remarks were not a personal criticism. However, I believe that the right hon. Gentleman was out of his depth as a manager of a senior Department. It was evident at that time that he was responding to all sorts of advice and pressures and was not able to handle the crisis as a head of a Department should be able to. I am afraid that—whether it is fair or not—the buck stops at the top. I also notice that if the right hon. Gentleman had been so wonderful, he might have been the current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs instead of being moved down a rank in the subsequent reshuffle.

I was about to say that most farmers want and welcome the need for change. That change will mean reduced production support. I say Xreduced", because, although I share other hon. Members' view that we need to move away from production support altogether, the reality of CAP reform is that such support will not go entirely. There will be a reduction.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I perfectly understand my hon. Friend's argument, but does he not think that it is a funny world when it is estimated that the aid that the developed countries give to the developing countries is only one seventh of what the developed countries give in subsidies to agricultural production?

Mr. Paice: My hon. Friend tempts me to consider the whole issue of helping the under-developed or developing world—what we used to call the third world before it became politically incorrect to do so. I have a huge personal interest in the subject, having visited many such countries. I do not want to spend much time considering that aspect of the CAP, but I agree that it is an obstacle to the development of those countries.

Those of us who have farmers in our constituencies will admit that some farmers will resist change. They have always done the same thing and want to continue doing the same thing. If that is what they want to do, that is their choice—so be it, and I would not for a moment suggest that the House, the Government or the European Union have a responsibility to ensure that they should be able to continue as they have if they are not prepared to face up to the need for change. But most farmers want change.

As others have said, most farmers and people in the countryside generally feel immensely let down by the Government. Many farmers do not understand the difference between food production in the terms that the Government use and the need for the strategic supply and the security of the food supply that I mentioned earlier. They do not understand why the Government have openly—it is in the documents that were published

12 Dec 2002 : Column 471

this morning—decided that security of food supply is no longer a facet of agricultural policy in Europe. Farmers hear Ministers refer, as they do in the motion, to

but the Government appear unwilling to support it.

I know that Labour Members will not like my next comment, but I must refer to a very small incident that was of nevertheless of huge importance. The Secretary of State went to Paris to promote the export of British beef, but refused to eat it. [Interruption.] The Minister makes a dismissive gesture and a guttural utterance, but his response demonstrates more than anything that the Government do not understand how important it is to be publicly supportive of people. I received phone calls and letters about that incident, as I am sure did my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and other hon. Friends who represent areas that produce more livestock than mine does. People were incensed by the right hon. Lady's refusal to eat the beef. I do not know what was behind the incident. Civil servants scrabbled around for reasons to explain her refusal, but it demonstrated that she was not prepared to show the courage to stand up for British beef.

Mr. Michael Beaumont, a butcher in a village in my constituency, rang me the day after the incident. He was Xabsolutely disgusted" at the Secretary of State's refusal to eat that beef, and he is not even a producer.

Mr. Morley: She had it for dinner.

Mr. Paice: I am delighted to hear that, but I am sure that a little snack during the day when the cameras were on her would have served a far greater purpose.

A number of hon. Members mentioned biofuels. I welcome the Chancellor's U-turn in the space of 18 months in deciding to reduce by 20p a litre the duty on bioethanol. When we debated the Finance Bill on 24 April 2001, the right hon. Gentleman flatly refused to extend the reduction to bioethanol despite introducing it to biodiesel. The only thing that changed in the interval was the fall in the price of grain. I want to issue a word of caution on that. Although I doubt that 20p will be sufficient to trigger the industry, as the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) said, we need to recognise that the figures have been worked out on the price of wheat today, which is roughly #55 a tonne. That is less than half what it was 10 years ago. Whether or not #55 a tonne is an economical feedstock price for the production of bioethanol, it is certainly not an economic price for the production of wheat. Farmers will not continue to produce wheat at #55 a tonne, especially as their production support—their integrated administration and control system cheque—reduces alongside it.

The linkage of payments to the environment is often quoted. Some 14 years ago I wrote a paper for my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), the then Minister, advocating a broad and shallow scheme similar to that now advocated by Mr. Don Curry. Although I think the new proposal is sensible, the article in Farmers Weekly has made me concerned about the bureaucracy involved.

In considering both the shallow scheme and the reported narrow and deep scheme that will replace the stewardship scheme and environmentally sensitive

12 Dec 2002 : Column 472

areas, we need to bear three things in mind. First, we must ensure that any scheme does not incur excessive bureaucracy that eats away the budget. Secondly, we must truly recognise, as the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) said, the total cost to the producer and the landowner. Costs are not merely equivalent to the loss of growing a crop. If a farmer is going to lose money growing a crop, it will not make any difference if he does not grow it and he will still lose the same sum. He will just be replacing one non-profitable land use with another. The sums involved have to produce a return for the care of the environment.

The third consideration is that we must recognise the conditions under which competition exists within Europe and across the globe. The Government regularly wax lyrical, as indeed do I, about the inequities of the CAP and its impact on free trade, especially with the developing world. However, I wonder whether we understand the consequences for our own producers as well as overseas producers. There are obviously factors such as labour costs on which we cannot compete. I have seen workers in Kenya and Zambia picking peas for a dollar a day for Tesco—clearly, we cannot compete with that, and nor should we try to do so. However, many competitive issues arise from our obligations to our producers and are a challenge that no Government have got to grips with. To return to the crucial issue of food production, we cannot expect British farmers to compete successfully and contribute to the vibrant food industry sought by the Government if they are vying with imported food which is inferior or has been produced under less rigorous regulatory systems. Regulations on animal health and welfare, pesticide control, waste management, landscape obligations and nitrate vulnerable zones all add huge costs to British producers, but they are not borne by many other producers, in both the developing and the developed world.

This is not just a selfish plea on behalf of farmers—there is also an impact on consumers and livestock, and the issue should be on our conscience. If the use of certain agri-chemicals or animal health products is banned or limited to certain purposes, it is usually in the name of food safety or sometimes environmental safety. It therefore does not make sense to expose our consumers or livestock to those chemicals in imported food, and is especially absurd in the European context, where there is free movement of goods. Enlargement will bring in central and eastern European countries that have already undermined many of our traditional markets, particularly the soft fruit market, where the produce all comes from Poland, largely destroying the soft fruit trade in this country. We need to consider carefully whether such food is as safe as ours to eat. Do they still use products that we have banned in this country?

On animal welfare, surely we have learned that onerous controls on welfare make no overall difference to individual animal welfare. If, as the Government wish, we ban all battery cages yet continue to import egg or egg products produced that way, we will not have improved overall the welfare of a single chicken. We can, in all conscience, claim to have improved the welfare of British chickens, but if they are replaced as producers by 10 times more chickens in battery cages in Poland, the United States and Brazil, have we done

12 Dec 2002 : Column 473

anybody or any chicken a favour? We face the same dilemma with environmental issues. We all want to protect our environment, whether water or air quality, the landscape or wildlife, but should that be at the expense of the environment in other countries? It may be argued that if Australia wants to continue growing wheat on land where it may not be wise to do so, and cause salination and desertification, it should be free to do so. The same argument applies to parts of Africa and the developing world, where the land cannot sustain intensive agriculture. Similarly, we could argue that it should be up to Brazil if it wants to destroy the rainforest.

However, we do not apply that rule to timber. As was said earlier, we have strong controls on the import of timber from virgin rainforests, as that could cause untold environmental degradation, but we do not impose the same controls on food imports from countries where production results in environmental degradation. That does not make sense, but how are we to respond? The first option, which I reject immediately, is significant import controls—they would be illegal in many cases and run counter to free trade. The second option is to abolish or lower dramatically our standards and regulations. That is equally undesirable and would probably be politically unpopular and impossible. Many regulations could be removed—I decry the Government's failure to assess regulatory controls, especially in Europe—but abolishing all of them or reducing their powers is not acceptable. So we come to the third option, which is to allow our producers to compete fairly. The only way to achieve fairness is to cost properly the impact on our producers of the regulations that we impose on them and which are not imposed on other producers who compete in our food markets. If we feed those costs back into the support system, we can to some extent level that famous playing field.

I do not believe that British farmers are opposed to competition. Like hon. Members in all parts of the House, I go out and speak to countless farmers. They object not to competition, but to unfair competition from people who do not have the same conditions imposed upon them as on our farmers. I am not advocating supporting inefficient producers. The regulations are not necessarily for the farmers' good; they are for the public good and for the environment, so in my view they are totally justified. It might also discourage Government from imposing ever more regulations on the industry if they knew that they would have to pay for them.

The document published by the Government this morning proposes to take forward the concept of whole-farm management plans. That is a commendable idea, and it provides the vehicle for what I am advocating—a vehicle for recognising the extra costs put on our farmers, so that they can compete fairly. All the other factors will then come into play and allow the good, efficient farmer to compete successfully. Those who cannot will not be able to blame the Government, only themselves. They may try to blame others, but they will have no justification for doing so.

12 Dec 2002 : Column 474

I believe in a competitive British farming industry. Unlike the hon. Member for Newport, West, I believe that it has a great future, but only if it is allowed to compete fairly. The Government have failed to grasp that nettle. There is no mention of fair competition in any of the documents published this morning. If I am honest, I must say that I do not think that the previous Government grasped the nettle as firmly as it should have been grasped. That is the only way we can ensure a future for British agriculture, not just for food production, but for the whole rural economy and the maintenance of so much of our landscape, which is a crucial benefit from agriculture. We can achieve that only if competition is fair, and that is up to Government. So far we have seen no sign that they recognise that.

Next Section

IndexHome Page