Common Agricultural Policy

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 17th October 2002.

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Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Discussions on the mid-term review of the CAP are continuing and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is vigorously pursuing the UK interest in reform at every opportunity.

Photo of Mr Archy Kirkwood Mr Archy Kirkwood Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

I think that every informed commentator now accepts that some change in the CAP is necessary, but will the Minister acknowledge that current levels of farm income are unsustainably low and that the uncertainty about the time that it will take to obtain a deal on CAP reform is exacerbating the situation? Obviously, the Secretary of State has urgent business in another place today, but it is vital that the Government keep the House advised of the details of the changing aspects of the policy as they evolve during the coming months. Will the Minister assure us that statements will be made as soon as any details are known, and will he also ensure that whenever CAP reform is secured it will be secured as efficiently and expeditiously as possible and that it will be done in a way that gives the UK farming industry a long-term, stable future?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman asks a series of detailed questions. We certainly want to keep the industry and the House informed. The Government believe that reform is necessary and, of course, the low level of farm incomes is a matter of concern. We want to help the UK farming industry to reform so that it has a sustainable future that is more linked to the market than to subsidy. With regard to timing, we have argued that the proposals that we welcomed in general terms do not go far enough or fast enough. Speedy reform, so that the industry knows where it is, would have our support, but we cannot determine the speed at which decisions are made.

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

During the summer, I met olive producers in Greece who told me about the perverse incentive in the system that encouraged them to store many litres of olive oil at only a couple of euros a barrel, which is then sold in this country at a reduced quantity so keeping prices here artificially high. Do not such perverse incentives militate against the proper production of food of the right quality and quantity and lead to higher prices for British consumers?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. She gives an example of perverse incentives that result in higher prices for consumers without particularly helping the sustainability of agriculture in this country or in other parts of Europe. It is important that we deal with these matters, and that reform takes place quickly, in advance of the enlargement of the European Union.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

Will the Minister tell us whether there is any truth in the leaked document published in The Guardian, which suggested that the Government had abandoned the issue of the fundamental reform of the common agricultural policy before the extension of the EU, and had said that there would be no changes of significance until at least 2007? As an attempt to explain the seriousness of the situation, will the Minister tell us how much EU and British funding is spent on dumping surplus food, and how much greater that surplus will be when the EU is extended?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I shall deal simply with the story to which the hon. Gentleman refers. No, it is not an accurate story, and the Secretary of State has written to the newspaper refuting it. There is no truth in it.

Photo of Ian Davidson Ian Davidson Labour/Co-operative, Glasgow Pollok

Does the Minister accept that the successes to date in reforming the common agricultural policy have been nothing short of pathetic? Does he agree that it is about time that we set British farmers free from welfare dependency, and that it would be in the farmers' interests to have a stable future, free from subsidy? Surely scrapping the CAP and letting British farmers stand on their own feet would be in their interests and in the interests of my constituents, who want cheaper food immediately.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It is interesting that Conservative Members were cheering some parts of my hon. Friend's question. They clearly want subsidies simply to be removed without anything being put in their place, which is an interesting shift in attitude. There are both domestic and international reasons why we must seize the opportunity to achieve a comprehensive shift in the focus of the common agricultural policy. I agree with my hon. Friend that progress has not been swift enough. It is necessary to meet the challenges of enlargement, to underwrite the EU's position in the World Trade Organisation negotiations, and, more importantly, to make our agriculture more competitive and sustainable, and to ensure that our rural economies can flourish despite the challenges ahead. I agree with my hon. Friend.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

As the Secretary of State has written to The Guardian about this article, will she come and tell the House exactly what she has said? As she is not here today and we have no explanation for her absence, may I wish her a speedy recovery if she is ill? If she is not, may I ask where she is?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that the Secretary of State is at the Environment Council, and has written to the Opposition to tell them that she is there looking after British interests. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman does not care about British interests, but we do, and the Secretary of State does. It would be ludicrous for Members of the House to ask the Secretary of State to come and answer at the Dispatch Box every time a newspaper gets a report wrong.