To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what assessment he has made of the extent to which the common agricultural policy at present gives British farmers the opportunity to compete on equal terms with their counterparts in Europe; and if he will make a statement.
As the Commission document on the price-fixing makes clear, it is very difficult to assess equal terms between member states, since so many factors vary.
Is this not an opportune time to have an independent inquiry into the workings of the common agricultural policy, to see whether British farmers are able to compete on equal terms with their counterparts in Europe?
We have had inquiries on some aspects of the CAP. For example, an inquiry into pigmeat came to the view that, with the possible exception of the MCA issue—the hon. Gentleman knows my position on this—overall the costs were similar and that it was not possible to suggest that British farmers were in an uncompetitive position. I do not believe that a general inquiry is required. It is always my aim to ensure that, on matters of Commission or national confidence, British farmers compete on reasonably fair terms. I shall have more to say about that in our debate later.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is becoming extremely difficult and embarrassing explaining and justifying to British pig farmers the commonality of an agricultural policy and market in which they seem to be diminishing in number at regular, cyclical intervals? Will he do something to underpin the British pig industry more successfully than we have managed to do so far?
Pig production has held up pretty well in this country, and we are maintaining our market share. I have made clear on a number of occasions that I should like to see MCAs eliminated.
Is the Minister aware of the precarious position of the pig industry in Northern Ireland, which has been decimated over the past decade, from a total of 24,000 producers to only 4,000? While we welcome the movement that he announced earlier on MCAs, will he strive to lift that burden from those who are trying to compete with northern Europe, where producers receive a subsidy of £50 to £70 per tonne? Will the Minister consider also increasing the export restitution, to enable an expanded market to be created in the third world?
We have considered export restitutions and pressed for them on a number of occasions. There have been a number of significant changes over the past six months, and the hon. Gentleman will realise that they are available to farmers in the European Community as a whole, not just to those in the United Kingdom. I have made it clear that the subsidy to which the hon. Gentleman referred has been considerably reduced during the past few weeks. It is my objective to have pigmeat MCAs eliminated altogether, although that will be difficult to achieve.