British Livestock Farming

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 8:41 pm on 21st April 1999.

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Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 8:41 pm, 21st April 1999

My contribution will be brief; time is getting on and other Members want to speak.

I begin by responding to the important and significant statement made by the Minister in the final part of his speech. Liberal Democrats give that statement a warm welcome. It is a correct decision which will help and bolster the section of the industry that includes abattoirs and primary producers. They are already suffering and, without being churlish, I echo the comment, "Too late," made from the Opposition Benches while the Minister was speaking. However, as a result of his statement, some small-scale abattoirs—of the sort with which all Members have constituency or regional contacts—which are in financial difficulty may now be able to claw themselves out of that difficulty over a period.

Having made the decision, I hope that in his discussions with banks, the Minister will point out that the responsibility for taking a lenient, indulgent and supportive attitude lies with the banks, because what might seem like a closure situation next week may not be one in 12 months' time. The bankers must have as steady a nerve as those operating the facilities. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will stress that point to the bankers and, with that caveat, I welcome what he said about the deferral for one year.

In relation to right hon. Gentleman's assessment, I make one suggestion. With all due respect, as he has only just made the statement, there has obviously been no opportunity to discuss the matter with the Chairman of the Select Committee on Agriculture, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff). However, in relation to the Food Standards Agency, surely we have broken new ground in the workings of the House, because a Select Committee is considering what is proposed in advance of legislation. That is a healthy and sensible development.

I do not doubt that the Chairman of the Select Committee and his colleagues already have a full in-tray. However, I wonder whether the assessment to which the Minister referred—the nature of the abattoir industry and its relationship to other parts of the food cycle, and so on—might not be better carried out by the Select Committee. We do not necessarily want only a Government-sponsored and controlled assessment and consultation process; we might want an all-party consultation process driven by the Chairman of the Select Committee, who would then report to the Government in due course. We cannot make decisions about that tonight; the matter is well beyond the remit—[Interruption.] Of course, it is up to the Committee, but it is also up to the Government to give it a fair wind, if they are so minded. I hope that the matter will be considered after tonight's statement; it would be a useful way forward.

Time is passing and I intend being brief. I turn to the wider issue of the reform of the common agricultural policy—and all that. The Minister was characteristically straightforward when he said that the outcome of the Agriculture Council—never mind the outcome at Berlin—was not as he would have wanted. I doubt whether it was what most Members of the House would have wanted.

The big political worry is that the outcome of those discussions can be regarded only as an interim settlement, and that the issue will have be revisited yet again if the European Union is to remain true to the broader political agenda of enlargement. The EU must be aware that there is no chance of practical enlargement into central and eastern Europe, even under the modified proposals agreed after the Berlin summit. The CAP will have to be reopened if Europe is to achieve any realisation of its broader ambition—a legitimate ambition, which, like all parties, we strongly support—to widen the frontiers of Europe and the membership of the EU itself.

Domestically, the Minister spoke of his wish for the establishment of more support systems for rural development in the wider sense, and in that respect the settlement achieved at the Agriculture Council and the Berlin summit is a great disappointment. We know that more finance is potentially available for investment in rural development projects and programmes, agrienvironment schemes, conservation, environmentally skewed schemes and so on; unfortunately, we are not to have access to those funds because of the unsatisfactory nature of the financial arrangements arrived at in the recent discussions. I hope that the Minister will continue to exert pressure on that subject. In particular, I hope that he will urge the Chancellor, who is the key person in this respect, to continue to press his opposite numbers at European level, because the current arrangements, which were railroaded through by the French late at night, are far from satisfactory and go against what Europe itself has said that it wants to achieve.

If we want greater emphasis to be placed on the environment, conservation and husbandry of the countryside, the only way to deliver that is to have people in the countryside who understand it, care for it and have experience of it. In most cases, given the structure of UK farming, that means maintaining the basic building block—the UK family farm. However, until additional money becomes available for that sort of rural investment, those family farms will either continue to amalgamate at the current rate or go out of business completely. Either way, we end up with a more denuded countryside, which is precisely the opposite of what Europe says it wants to achieve.

That reflects the profoundly unsatisfactory state in which the discussions of the CAP were left. Although those discussions cause uncertainty in the agricultural community in this country, as in every other EU member state, we have to be honest with our farming sector and say that Pandora's box will have to be reopened sooner rather than later, if the broader aims of European enlargement and more enlightened and more economically deliverable conservation of the UK environment and countryside are to be achieved.

I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said—it would be hard not to agree with him, because, from our experience of listening to rural Britain, we know that he was telling us the facts. However, the Conservatives' motion contains a hint that all the problems began at the stroke of midnight on 2 May 1997. They did not. The party that was continuously in office for the previous 18 years cannot tell us with any more persuasiveness than they bring to health matters that the set of rural policy levers that are thrown one year have an immediate impact the next. Both health policy and rural policy have longevity—they roll on and on. Therefore, much as I agree with many of the hon. Gentleman's points, the great weakness of the Conservatives' case is that history did not begin only two years ago; it dates back much further than that, and their case is weakened by their unwillingness to acknowledge that.

I have two further points to make in respect of Europe. The crisis in the pig industry has already been described, so I shall not go over that again. The Government must be extremely proactive about the labelling issue. The European labelling directive is rather like Billy Bunter's postal order: it is in the post, but we will believe it when we see it. We will wait a very long time if we wait for Europe. Can the Government take some primary legislative initiative here and now, rather than waiting for Godot in Brussels to deliver something in terms of labelling?