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12 Dec 2002 : Column 479—continued


Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I have listened with interest this afternoon to many fine speeches making a number of different points. I have to say that I disagree with some colleagues, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). We agree on so many things, but, sadly, on this issue, he seems to be a convert to the economics of Milton Friedman, and I certainly do not agree with that.

Yesterday, I made a speech about the CAP in an Adjournment debate. I do not want to repeat that speech now, but in it I put forward the proposition that the CAP should be abolished. We should put that proposition on the table and try to negotiate it with our colleagues in the European Union. I have even proposed a way of defusing some of the political difficulties that might be involved. This will have to happen one day, and we ought to start talking about it now.

The Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall was secured by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), who made an excellent speech. I refer hon. Members to what he said. The conclusion that we should draw from his arguments is that the CAP should be abolished. I have felt that for a long time, and I have said so many times. It should be replaced by a repatriated system of agricultural policies, with subsidies where appropriate. Appropriate subsidies should be decided by Government according to needs. We could debate those at length. Many areas do not need subsidy, but some do. We should consider the needs of consumers, farmers and the environment in designing a new agricultural policy that is tuned to our own needs.

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Every EU member state is different, especially those about to join, and their agricultural policies should be adjusted and tuned to their own needs. Redistributive incomes across the European Union should be assessed according to prosperity and not determined by some arbitrary system through the CAP. Some richer nations are net beneficiaries and some slightly poorer nations, such as the United Kingdom—we are not as rich as Denmark—are net contributors merely because of the perverse effect of the CAP.

The common fisheries policy has been touched on, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary knows my view on that. He does not agree with me. I have great respect for him, and he does a fine job, but I believe that the CFP should be abandoned forthwith. It has been a complete and utter disaster. The only way to preserve fish stocks in the North sea and the shores around the European Union is by nations establishing extensive national fisheries that they husband themselves. They will have a natural self-interest in doing that. The only country in Europe that still has reasonable fish stocks is Norway, because it has its own fishing fields and is not part of the CFP. I make that point strongly, and I hope that one day the abolition of the CFP will come to pass.

There are political ways forward on all these difficult issues. Clearly, some countries would be upset, but they could be reassured if there were tapering arrangements to deal with subsidies over a period.

A number of hon. Members have also referred to energy policy, which should include low-carbon vehicles. Many of my constituents have worked in the motor industry for many years—far too few of them since the closure of Vauxhall Motors. Vauxhall still has an office in Luton, and recently I saw a prototype of a fuel cell-driven car. It is an impressive vehicle, but it is unfortunately still very expensive. I suspect that motor manufacturers are still committed to the standard internal combustion engine, driven by petrol or diesel oil. Obviously, replacing that capital investment will be expensive and will take time, but Governments have a duty to encourage and pressurise manufacturers to move in that direction. I look forward to driving a car that does not produce carbon dioxide, but instead produces water. When hydrogen is burned in the air it produces H2O. The electrical input must be created in another way, but there are alternatives to carbon for electricity generation.

It is disappointing that we have been so slow to adopt solar heating and solar electricity generation for domestic, commercial and industrial buildings. Global warming may make that easier to do in Britain. Within the next year or two, I am hoping to lead by example and have solar-voltaic cell panels on my own home. The Government provide a 50 per cent. subsidy, which is welcome, and I congratulate them on that great advance. I think that that will persuade people, but the advance is still painfully slow. The number of people installing solar panels in their roofs is low. The initial capital cost is the problem. There should be novel ways of overcoming that. They could be installed free with a capital charge on the value of the house. I am sure that something could be done. If we invested money in solar roof panels—water heating and photo-voltaic panels—rather than in nuclear energy, we would be spending our money much better.

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Over a long period, it might be possible to provide the whole country with solar roof panels. Photo-voltaic cell panels can now be made in a way that makes them look very nice: they look like ordinary roof tiles, while generating electricity. They can be plugged into the mains, enabling people to put electricity back into the mains from their houses and to gain a financial benefit. There are obviously tremendous advantages in this, but it must be sold hard, supported, sustained and driven forward. We could in fact develop a big solar roof panel industry, which would help manufacturing.

I am also concerned about transport, particularly public transport. For a long time I have advocated the building of a freight railway running from the north-west through the channel tunnel to Lille, skirting round or going through London. That Xcentral railway" is one idea, although there are variations on the theme. In any event, we could do with a dedicated freight route that could cope with fully sized lorries and trailers. There would be no need for specially cut down trailers. It would be a roll-on, roll-off service from the north of England—of course, it could accommodate Scotland and other areas as well—to the continent and, ultimately, to its industrial heartland.

That would be a tremendous advance. It would be extremely attractive to hauliers. It would reduce the need for road-building; it would also reduce road damage, environmental degradation throughout the country and the traffic jams around Birmingham and London. It is a modest proposal, involving four trains an hour in each direction and a roll-on, roll-off facility for lorries travelling from the north-west through the Pennines to Sheffield, past the east and west midlands to the continent—hopefully taking our goods out as well as bringing its goods in.

We could look at many other aspects of public transport. I travel by train nearly every day from my constituency; indeed, I have travelled by train to London nearly every day for 33 years. I like to lead by example in that as in other respects! We must build rail capacity, and ensure that fares are right. The recent proposal to increase fares in order to deter train users strikes me as retrograde: I hope that the Government will invest heavily in both passenger and freight rail services, and that there will come a day when rail travel is much cheaper in relation to car travel than it is now. I hope that public transport will come into its own again.

I have spoken briefly because I know that others want to contribute, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister has at least noted what I have said.

5.58 pm

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): No one could accuse the motion of not being comprehensive. I was only surprised not to find, half way down, mention of mothers and apple pie. I must tell the Minister, however, that the phrase

will send a hollow laugh around the coastal rural communities of Scotland.

Agriculture is proportionally more important to the Scottish economy than to the United Kingdom economy as a whole. That applies particularly to the

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export of meat and livestock. Some 70,000 people in Scotland work in agriculture, about 40,000 of whom are owner-occupiers—although, interestingly, fewer than half of them now work full-time in agriculture. That is an indication of the change in agriculture in Scotland and, I am sure, in many other areas over the years. Farmers have had to find alternative sources of income to boost their agricultural income.

Last year the average annual farm income was just over #9,500 outside the area affected by foot and mouth; in that area, obviously, it was less than zero. There has been much talk today about farmers diversifying into other areas. They have been trying to do that for many years. In my area, for example, they have gone into the usual businesses—bed and breakfast, holiday cottages and more esoteric enterprises such as quad biking. Others have expressed interest in diversifying into green fuels by growing crops for biomass energy or biodiesel, although commercial uses for these may be some years off. As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), it is important that the plant should be up and running to encourage farmers to move into these areas. If not, it will be difficult to persuade them to do so, because of past problems. I remember one case in my constituency in which the great saviour of agriculture was to be the growing of flax. Many farmers invested in the crop but the plant that was supposed to process it never opened and many lost a great deal of money, so they will be reluctant to go into that area again.

Apart from diversification, most farmers want to be farmers. They are not racetrack operators or oil producers. They have made attempts to find new markets and niche markets for their agricultural produce. Many other right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned the growing number of farmers' markets throughout the country, but with the best will in the world, farmers' markets and direct selling cannot provide a big enough market for all farmers in the UK. The main purchasers of agricultural products are and will continue to be supermarkets. We cannot condemn this too much. After all, how many Members can truly say that they do not make the bulk of their food purchases at Sainsbury, Tesco or one of the other temples of mass consumerism? That is the rub that farming faces. How do we ensure that supermarkets do not use their huge economic power to push down the price paid to farmers? One effect of the European Community and free trade agreements is that supermarkets can source food from elsewhere in the world.

The Curry report, along with many others, talks about moving into organic produce and niche markets. Many have urged farmers to go organic to get a premium for their produce. That is fine in theory but how realistic would it be for the bulk of farmers to turn to organic produce? Do not get me wrong—I am in favour of organic produce. I seek it out, as I am sure many others do, and we accept that we have to pay a little more for it.

Some 50 per cent. of organic land in the UK is in Scotland. There has been an increase in the output of organic food in Scotland, but the UK market continues to be dominated by imports. If farmers attempt to go organic, the huge costs mean that it is some years before they can be fully organic. They find exactly the same

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problems in dealing with supermarkets as do conventional farmers. The supermarkets use their huge economic power to push down the price they pay. They impose the same standards on organic produce as they do on conventional produce, so there can be much greater wastage in organic production. If organic production takes off to a large extent, it will inevitably mean that the premium will be gradually eroded and may indeed disappear altogether. Farmers could find themselves back in the same situation as they are in now, but with greater costs.

To get round this, we have to tackle the problem of how we deal with supermarkets. I asked the hon. Members for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) about this problem, because I do not see a ready solution to it. I hope that the Minister will say something about the Government's attitude. It is touched on in the report, but there is no real sense of how Governments will deal with the large supermarkets and ensure that they take a greater amount of organic and local produce.

There are real concerns about genetically modified foods, particularly the trials that are taking place. In an earlier intervention, I mentioned the British Medical Association's evidence to the Scottish Parliament. Quite rightly, there is some consumer resistance to eating genetically modified food, yet there is huge pressure from the producers of the seed and the substances that are put on it for farmers to move towards producing genetically modified foods. Almost alone among European Government, this Government seem determined to promote its use. Again, if it goes wrong, it will not be the supermarkets that suffer but the farmers, who may be left with contaminated fields. They will be the real losers.

The common agricultural policy has been mentioned. We are told that the European Commission is considering decoupling support from production, and that is also the thrust of what the Curry report said. That would bring an increase in modulation, leading to a projected 20 per cent. cut in support payments, but only payments of more than Euro5,000, which I am told is just over #3,000, will be modulated, so throughout Europe more than 60 per cent. of farmers will not be modulated. They are mainly small farmers in southern European countries, but only 9 per cent. of Scottish farmers would be exempt, which could cause a massive and unsustainable reduction in already low incomes. Experience shows that much of the support available will go to large landowners rather than rural communities.

Scottish farming is badly affected by the UK Government's reluctance to draw on European compensation funds, allegedly because matching funds are required. The decision not to seek agrimonetary compensation will lose Scottish growers more than #11 million over the next two to three years.

The question of how a rural community is defined has also been touched on. There is no mention of fishing in the motion, although the Secretary of State referred to it. Many rural communities in the north and east Scotland rely on fishing. If the current proposals from the European Commission are allowed to proceed in anything like their current form, they will spell disaster for rural Scotland.

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The Scottish Executive have estimated that 44,000 jobs in Scotland are dependent on fishing. Many of those are in rural areas where there is little other employment, especially given the recent difficulties with agriculture. If fishing goes, many of our small rural communities may well go with it. The European Commissioner said that the industry will not be expected to bear the burden alone and hinted that there will be decommissioning schemes and compensation. That is all very well, and will help those who are currently in the industry, but it will not help the communities that rely on fishing, because there will not be jobs in the future. Money may be available—I expect that in Scotland much of it will have to come from the Executive—but it will not secure the future of those communities. Drastic economic decline could follow. That is no way to

The hon. Member for Lewes rightly mentioned animal transportation. Few of us would be against controls on the transport of live animals, but I urge Ministers to bear in mind the specific problems for many remote rural areas, and island communities in particular, if too tight a definition is applied. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, many local abattoirs were closed, meaning that in many communities animals have to travel substantial distances for slaughter.

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