Food and Farming

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 5:37 pm on 20th October 1999.

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Letwin:

No, I was not aware of that. One of the defects of the Alice in Wonderland world in which we live is that one can hardly live another day without hearing of another proposed directive or regulation. My hon. Friend is obviously right. Any additional mandatory burden on pig producers today would be a nail in a coffin to be resisted.

I come to the second part of the Minister's defence against action in this sphere, because it is important. He based part of his argument on the assertion that to subsidise offal disposal costs would be an improper state aid because, in some important way, such a subsidy is not similar to the cattle passport subsidy. Incidentally, I do not quite regard it as a subsidy because I have never been able to understand, on the basis of pocket handkerchief calculations, how the real cost of a cattle passport could be £7. Other countries appear to be able to provide that for £2. I beg the Minister to ask someone in his Department, or perhaps outside it, to investigate how the resource cost of a cattle passport could genuinely be £7. However, that is by the by. No doubt it has a cost and the Minister is subsidising it, which is splendid.

The question is what is the relevant disanalogy between the subsidy of the cattle passport cost and the subsidy of offal disposal costs. Both are regulatory costs which apparently arise for health and safety reasons. We would not have cattle passports if there was no health and safety reason for them. We clearly have a health and safety reason for the offal disposal costs being imposed in the first place. They seem directly analogous, in which case I cannot understand what the relevant disanalogy could be.

I admit that the legal gums in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will have their views on what is or is not a proper state aid, but I beg the Minister to consider that the whole experience of the UK Government during the past 10 or 15 years is that we have been peculiarly timorous in stretching the boundaries of what we can get away with vis-á-vis state aids, or anything else, in the EU. That is one of our disadvantages.

There is a matter of realpolitik here. If this was an open and shut case, if such a subsidy was clearly an improper state aid, I would not recommend this course of action, but if, as I deeply suspect, there is ground at least for legal argument, and if the Minister were to take the action of funding these costs only for the Commission later to decide to take him to court, it would be one, two or three years down the line before the matter was determined, and by that time we would have a pig industry. In a similar environment in Paris, that would hardly need to be said because everyone would know that that was the way one played the game. But for some reason it sounds odd to English ears.

I welcome that it sounds odd to English ears because I welcome the fact that we still have—although the Government are still trying to destroy it, in co-operation with their colleagues from other countries—an English judicial system and a respect for it. Therefore, we are attuned to the idea of not taking—the Government in particular—the slightest risk. The Treasury Solicitor's Department is peculiarly well organised to help the Government to avoid ever taking the slightest risk. Spiritually, as an Englishman, I welcome that. But here we have a national crisis and a possible means of solving it, and there is a practical way of doing that if the Minister will take it.