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Mr. Steen: It must be extremely reassuring for the Minister to know that the European Scrutiny Committee is at one with her on this matter. Could she just explain, for somebody with a limited grasp of the proposal, what would happen in respect of a country that opted into it—if that is how they would do it—and who would do what? How would distribution take place and to whom would the goods be distributed? Who would determine who the goods would go to?
As with supermarkets that are wary about allowing food that has not been sold by the due date to be distributed to those who might want it, there are problems in respect of insurance, negligence and health and safety. Could the Minister give me some guidance as to how the thing would work in countries that operate it?
Jane Kennedy: I have a detailed list of which countries participate and what proportions are involved. I would need to check my copy of Hansard—I cannot lay my hands on it right at this minute—but I understand that the scheme is based on an assessment of the proportion of the population in member states that falls below the internationally accepted standard of relative poverty, which is 60 per cent. of the mean wage. I am puzzling over how, that being the case, Italy and Poland managed to secure such a large proportion of the budget, given that other participating states include Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania and others, where it might be anticipated that a high proportion of the population would fall within that category. The resources that have been allocated to member states for this year indicate that, for example, Estonia gets 0.06 per cent. of the total budget, Latvia 1 per cent., Lithuania 1.8 per cent. and Greece 4 per cent., in comparison with Italy’s 26 per cent. and Poland’s 20 per cent.
Mr. Paice: May I pursue the same line with the Minister? My understanding is that, in five of the 10 new member states, excluding Bulgaria and Romania, for which I do not have the figures, the number of people who are most deprived is in excess of 20 per cent. of their population, yet in Denmark, for example, it is only 2 per cent. and in the worst case, which is Slovakia, it is 37 per cent. Perhaps the Minister will concur that alongside Poland, which she mentioned, France, Spain and Italy are the biggest beneficiaries of the programme, receiving, I am told, €170 million between them—a total of 60 per cent. of the budget, yet Slovakia, with more than a third of its population in poverty, is scheduled to receive just €1.5 million.
Whatever one thinks about whether it is a social thing or a CAP thing, there is something seriously and fundamentally wrong with such a proposal, is there not?
Jane Kennedy: I absolutely agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. It is precisely those concerns that have led us to oppose so strongly the measures in the proposal. It is useful to note that a number of other member states are equally opposed to the measure, including the Czech Republic, which has assumed the presidency.
Mr. Williams: When I leave this place fairly early in the evening and go back to my flat, I pass a hostel for the homeless and I see food being distributed, which I guess is past the best—
Mr. Steen: The sell-by date.
Mr. Williams: Yes, it is past the sell-by date but it is still food that is obviously fit for human consumption. The cost of distributing that food is fairly negligible to everybody concerned. However, if the proposed scheme was implemented, we would all be worried that the bureaucracy involved would be substantial and far greater than any benefit that could possibly be received by the people who are in need of the food. Do we know what the costs of administering the present scheme are in relation to the amount of food that is distributed?
Jane Kennedy: I do not have the details of the costs immediately to hand, but I should be happy to provide that information, as it would be of benefit to the Committee.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about bureaucracy. I have made my own views clear. However, the UK Government are very firmly of the view that if member states want to help the poorest people in their society, that is a laudable objective but there are other ways of achieving it. It is for member states themselves to determine how it should be done.
Mr. Steen: Subsidiarity.
Jane Kennedy: Exactly. Therefore the proposal that this type of food distribution be determined at Commission level is entirely inappropriate.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): When I looked at the appendices to the Commission’s working papers, I struggled to find any form of objective analysis that the scheme would address the source of the problems that it is supposed to address. I am looking in particular at a table in annexe 10 that shows the percentage of people who cannot afford a meal with meat, chicken or fish every second day. There may be many other reasons why that situation pertains, but does the Minister agree that such analysis alone is not sufficient to justify a scheme such as this one?
Jane Kennedy: I agree. As I said earlier, the UK Government and I are resolute in believing, as do Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the Czech Republic among others, that the scheme is not an appropriate way for the European Community to use resources that could be more effectively used to improve competition and enhance markets within the EU in a more appropriate way, which would benefit agriculture, the European Union and the societies that we all represent within our member states. We do not believe that the measure is an appropriate tool.
Mr. Steen: What it boils down to is a thumbs down to the Commission, which has spent an immense amount of time, effort, energy and bureaucracy on coming up with the scheme. However, rather than just being negative about it, is there a way that we can turn it round, so that the poorest members of society can benefit from surpluses? Furthermore, could the UK Government take a lead on getting the Commission to rethink the scheme and come up with something that is more suitable and attractive to the countries that object to it?
Jane Kennedy: I am not sure that we would be inclined to go down that route, by virtue of the fact that we have declined to use the scheme and not a single charity that I am aware of is lobbying us to join it. Based on our experience that the costs of operating the scheme outweighed the benefits and that the bureaucracy involved was too great, the charities involved were at one with us when we decided back in 1998 not to use the scheme any further. I would thus not be inclined to lobby for the scheme in Europe, although we are standing firm on the requirements that it be properly budgeted and co-financed. If the scheme had to go ahead, and if the minority blocking the proposal were to be chipped away, co-financing—requiring a member state to match the spending pound for pound—would bring a certain focus within the member states concerned so that they would start to examine the cost-benefit ratio involved in the proposal.
Mr. Jack: In tackling such issues, does the Minister agree that the Community would be better served if it achieved the objective set out in the Lisbon agenda?
Jane Kennedy: I believe so.
Mr. Steen: I thank the Minister for her extremely helpful answer, but could she go a little further? Is there a way in which the UK Government could turn the proposal into something else, with the Commission being encouraged to help EU countries focus more on food surpluses and the need to feed the hungry?
Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that we could more usefully use the surpluses is answered by the fact that there are fewer and fewer surpluses in the so-called intervention stocks, although I understand that there will be some sugar across the European Union. It is because intervention stocks are declining to zero right across the European member states that the Commission is considering shifting the emphasis to purchase on the open market. That is completely beyond what we think is a sensible use of European funds. Even though we declined to participate in the scheme, our taxpayers’ money would be used if it went ahead. We would be helping other countries in an entirely inappropriate measure.
Mr. Steen: I thank the Minister for that very helpful explanation.
The Chairman: If no more Members want to ask questions, we will proceed to the debate on the motion.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 13195/08: Proposal for a Council Regulation amending Regulation (EC) No. 1290/2005 on the financing of the common agricultural policy and Regulation (EC) No. 1234/2007 establishing a common organisation of agricultural markets and on specific provisions for certain agricultural products (Single CMO Regulation) as regards food distribution to the most deprived persons in the Community; and supports the Government’s concern about the appropriateness of the proposal as the EU should only act where there are clear additional benefits from collective efforts as compared with action by Member States, either individually or collectively.—(Jane Kennedy.)
4.57 pm
Mr. Paice: I will not detain the Committee for many seconds as I know that there are other attractions, to which the Minister has already referred. It is unusual for us not to have to exhort the Government to oppose something coming from Europe, but instead to support them in their stance. We do so wholly on this occasion.
I agree with the Minister that the scheme is not a suitable process to go through the CAP, using CAP funding. As she rightly said, intervention stocks have largely disappeared in the UK. Our view is that intervention should exist only as a means of absorbing wholly unexpected market shocks and should not be a support mechanism, which is the direction taken by the CAP changes in any case. For the Commission to translate the use of intervention stocks, which may have been sensible at the time, albeit highly bureaucratic, into simply buying on the open market, and doing it through CAP funding seems to be somewhat absurd. I agree with the Minister that it should be a social issue funded and run locally with the minimum of bureaucracy—we all know how good charities are at doing that. There is nothing to stop an individual member state providing funding for its own charities to run schemes if it wants to do so.
Perversely, we on the Conservative Benches strongly support the principle of co-financing for the CAP in the future, and hope that it will happen. However, if there is as much opposition to co-financing in this relatively minor measure as the Minister suggests, it may not be easy to achieve with the CAP. If opposition to co-financing is sufficient to scupper the proposal, that is good enough for me, even though it might be operating in a way directly opposite to what we want.
As I suggested in my questions, I am extremely puzzled by the imbalance in the potential benefit of the scheme. If it is to be done, the help should go to those who need it the most. I am sure that everyone, whatever their political perspective, would agree with that. To suggest putting 60 per cent. of the funding into three of the richest member states in Europe, one of which is a net funder of the CAP, seems patently daft and clearly outside the objectives of the scheme.
I support the Government strongly in opposing the measure, certainly with the proposed legal text, and strongly hope that the blocking minority which the Minister says exists is maintained. I encourage her to use her charm to ensure that it is.
5.1 pm
Mr. Williams: Consideration of the scheme raises two important issues: the number of people in the UK and across the European Union who find it difficult to afford a decent diet, and what should be done about that; and food that could and sometimes does go to waste in landfill that could be put to much better use. My party believes that EU involvement in the scheme is wholly inappropriate. It would be costly and would add to bureaucracy but would add no value at all to anything that we could do in this country to alleviate the problem and to make the best use of food.
For those reasons, we support the Government in their opposition to the scheme, and we hope that they will be successful in ensuring that it does not go ahead. I cannot conceive of any nation in the EU that would benefit from it or could not put in place a scheme of its own which would be of more use to its people.
5.2 pm
Mr. Steen: I want to say just a few words. I hope that the Minister feels that the debate, although it has been short, has been important. The European Scrutiny Committee, on which I have had the pleasure to serve for a few years, has a difficult job wading through hundreds of papers to choose which items should be referred to Standing Committee. Generally, members of the Scrutiny Committee were a little troubled by the proposal.
It was reassuring to hear what the Minister had to say, and I hope that she feels that it was right to bring the proposal before the Committee, even though there is unanimous agreement on the Government’s approach.
5.3 pm
Mr. Jack: As a former Agriculture Minister from the old days when the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food existed, I used to run the scheme that was the predecessor of this idea. When I read the papers for the Committee, I suddenly thought that I was suffering from a time slip. I thought that I had woken up in a different time zone, because I remembered all the submissions that used to come to me about novel and different ways of distributing the butter, tins of mincemeat and various other commodities that used to form part of the schemes that I was involved in to use intervention stocks to get rid of materials.
We cannot please all the people all the time, and the scheme certainly did not universally tackle the problem of diet and access to food, so I could not believe that it was resurfacing, particularly taking into account the reference to intervention. The idea that the Community could think, at a time when food security is also on its agenda, that going into the marketplace and using member state funds to purchase food for dubious reasons— for distribution to address what are, in effect, poverty and diet issues in member states, which are better dealt with by other mechanisms—seems wholly inconsistent with the approach that it has been taking on securing food supplies. Schemes such as this one, which involve bidding for the same materials that others are bidding for, could, at times of shortage, exacerbate the difficulties that the food market may be facing in satisfying the food needs of Europe.
The whole thing is totally inconsistent, and the evidence base is extremely poor—I am thinking of some of the questionnaires attached to the document. If one asks, “Do you think that it is a good idea to help people out?”, everybody will say, “Yes”, because they have not been presented with full details about the questions.
I strongly encourage the Minister to resist the proposal. To deal with diet, affordability and access to foodstuffs, education in the use of lower-cost foods may be far better than simply giving away to a limited number of people food that might have to be bought in dubious circumstances. That is the wrong way to tackle the alleged problems, and I wholeheartedly support the position of both Front Benches.
5.5 pm
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