The compliments of the season to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House. I shall now move on to the ingredients for the traditional fare.
The present EU sugar regime is unsustainable and reform is long overdue. It requires consumers to pay two and a half times the world price for sugar, and acts as a barrier to imports from third countries other than on specially negotiated conditions.
The Commission has made proposals which would begin the process of reform, and has also proposed opening up access to the European Union market for sugar from the least-developed countries At this week's Agriculture Council, I argued for a coherent and orderly reform of the sugar regime, which would take into account the interests of the EU industry, but also the EU's obligations to the very poorest countries. Negotiations will continue under the Swedish presidency.
As my right hon. Friend says, the failure to reform the common agricultural policy on sugar means that consumers and manufacturers, such as Cadbury in my constituency, are paying two to three times world prices for sugar at the same time as we are denying the poorest countries access to our markets. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the EU sugar regime will not prevent the everything but arms proposal from succeeding and that the reform will not set developing countries against one another?
My hon. Friend is on to a good point. At the Council of Ministers, I argued strongly in favour of reforming the sugar regime but, like other Ministers, I drew attention to the everything but arms proposal. It seems to me that the two proposals must be taken in parallel and that market access should be accompanied by reform of the European Union regime.
What exactly does the Minister mean by that response? What exactly is he saying in the Council of Ministers about the inclusion of sugar in the everything but arms proposal? All the letters that I have received from the Government suggest that they remain wedded to the inclusion of sugar, which will have severe consequences for British sugar farmers, for the British sugar manufacturing industry and, of course, for the African, Caribbean and Pacific sugar-producing countries.
The proposal is intended to provide market access for the poorest countries in the world. The hon. Gentleman overstates the dangers, although I accept that the EU industry perceives them to be real enough. The quantities involved are relatively small and there are safeguards in the proposal. The Commission is the custodian of the safeguards. Irrespective of whether the everything but arms proposal has an impact on the European Union market, the case for reforming the sugar regime is blindingly obvious.
There is nothing new in the proposals. I have with me two pages of quotes from Conservative Ministers arguing for reform. Way back in 1995, the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) told the House:
We are pressing for a price reduction of some 12 per cent. in the negotiations.—[Official Report, 23 March 1995; Vol. 257. c. 479.]
I have to say that he did not achieve it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that throughout the country there is broad support for giving access to the least-developed countries and some of the poorest people in the world, and for not allowing that progress to be held up by the selfish interests of small groups of producers?
I agree with my hon. Friend, but the two proposals should be taken forward in parallel. We should accord the poorest countries in the world access to European Union markets, but the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) is right that it could conceivably impact on the EU's own regime, and it is clear that we should take reform of that regime forward in parallel.
Judging from ministerial responses in a recent European Scrutiny Committee, is the Minister not a little embarrassed that he still cannot say if and when the EBA initiative will begin? Is that not woefully inadequate, given that the first 20 per cent. tariff cut is due on 1 January 2001? Consultation has been almost non-existent and impact assessments will be shown to be worthless. When will the Government start to stand up for British interests and seek to halt this over-hasty policy, which will cripple the sugar industry of both the United Kingdom and the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries?
The hon. Gentleman is dramatically overstating the case. I was standing up for British interests at the Council of Ministers on Tuesday. It is in the clear interests of consumers and taxpayers in this country that we reform the sugar regime, and there is nothing new in that. Back in March 1990, the then Parliamentary Secretary, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), said:
We have never disguised our belief that the price of beet sugar is far too high—[Official Report, 8 March 1990; Vol. 168, c. 990.]
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Conservative party has changed its mind? I thought that Conservatives believed in markets.