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Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 7:58 pm on 25th June 1996.

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Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 7:58 pm, 25th June 1996

I think that the hon. Gentleman can count. He is waving two fingers at me, but that is the signal that he usually makes to the Government.

It is appropriate for the Liberal Democrats to use an Opposition day debate to call the Minister of Agriculture to account. We are not here to attack faceless, anonymous civil servants or junior Ministers. The political responsibility for the Ministry of Agriculture rests with the Cabinet-level Minister. We have heard an outpouring of emotion from some Conservative Back Benchers about the attacks on poor old Douglas, but if we read the national press, we find that half the Cabinet has called for him to be moved in an early reshuffle. It is transparent and unpersuasive, to say the least, for Conservatives to cry crocodile tears over the Minister of Agriculture.

Anything that has been said, including by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) in his measured speech earlier, which was critical of the Minister of Agriculture is, as we all know, as nothing compared with what his colleagues have said off the record, on the Terrace, in the Dining Rooms and in the bars in the past few weeks. We have heard criticism after criticism of the inept way in which the Ministry of Agriculture has approached its entire policy. It is appropriate that we should have drawn attention to that in our motion.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) put up a plausible defence of the Minister of Agriculture when he said that nobody is accountable because everything is decided in Brussels. That is a good argument for the Liberal Democrats' policy of opening up the Council of Ministers, so that the public could watch the meetings and judge Ministers' actions and contributions. We want to see far greater accountability to the House by Ministers who take decisions in Brussels behind closed doors, often through qualified majority voting. If the hon. Member for Ludlow is concerned about a lack of accountability, I hope that he will study in detail the excellent and constructive proposals that we put forward for the intergovernmental conference, and with which he might find himself in happy, if unexpected, agreement.

We are correct to focus on the inept way in which the matter has been handled. I was at a meeting in the Agriculture Directorate in Brussels a month ago and the officials told of us their despair.