HC Deb 20 October 1994 vol 248 cc407-9
1. Sir Thomas Arnold

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what plans he has for the further reform of the common agricultural policy.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. William Waldegrave)

The Government have led the way in seeking reform of the common agricultural policy. I shall be continuing to press for further reform at the Agriculture Council in Luxembourg next week.

Sir Thomas Arnold

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post. What end result would he like to see from further reform of the common agricultural policy? Is there now a case for repatriation?

Mr. Waldegrave

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. I should like to see a common agricultural policy which moved nearer to world market prices; which was simpler to administer; and which, as a matter of priority, got rid of such idiocies as the wine regime, under which we pay for the conversion of low-grade Italian wine into industrial fuel which is then sent at a subsidised rate to Brazil to be put into motor cars. That is crazy.

On my hon. Friend's final point, repatriation is not necessarily the way forward. If we are to have a common market in agricultural products, we need a level playing field in terms of support systems. That is the purpose of having the right common agricultural policy.

Mr. Stevenson

Does the Minister recall his predecessor's statement in May 1992 to the effect that the CAP reforms were good for Britain, good for farmers and good for the taxpayer? Is he aware that, between 1992 and next week's estimates, the CAP budget will have increased by £6.3 billion? How can that be good for the taxpayer, the consumer or the average family, who are paying £20 a week more than they should for their food? Does not that mean that the CAP continues to be bad for Britain, bad for the taxpayer and bad for the consumer?

Mr. Waldegrave

No. The reforms relieved the British consumer of something like £1 billion of excess costs. I agree that we want prices to come down further, nearer to the real market prices. However, the reforms were a useful step forward and they have done better than many people predicted in getting rid of surpluses of, for example, cereals and beef. We now have much less beef in intervention than we used to.

Mr. Pickles

In considering reform of the common agricultural policy, will my right hon. Friend consider especially the effect of a proposed new directive on nitrates in broadleaf vegetables, which threatens many vegetables grown under glass in Britain? I thank him for taking the matter to the Council of Ministers. Will he assure the House that he will fight as hard as his predecessor for British horticulture?

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We have sent a powerful paper containing evidence from absolutely first-class epidemiologists such as Sir Richard Doll, which proves that there is absolutely no risk from nitrates in lettuce and that the directive is misconceived. I shall fight it. I remember the Leader of the Opposition saying that he will never be isolated in Europe. He says that he will always agree, which means that he will sign up to such directives. One has to he isolated sometimes if one is to fight.

Dr. Strang

May I congratulate the Minister on his appointment? I am sure that his family history, knowledge of agriculture and ministerial experience will be a help to him. Does the new CAP policy group mean that the Minister has spent some of the past three months studying the CAP? Did he note that less than two years ago one of his predecessors presented the latest reform as something of a triumph for Britain? Is not the truth of the matter that during the past 15 years the Government have not mounted a serious attempt to alter a policy that is misusing thousands of millions of pounds of British taxpayers' money?

Mr. Waldegrave

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and congratulate him on his election to the shadow Cabinet. The post-MacSharry reforms were indeed a great improvement on what was there before. Surpluses have been cut, and the level of overpricing has been brought back, but there is far more to do. The entry of central and eastern European countries—towards the end of the century, we hope—will provide not only an opportunity but the necessity for further major reform. We shall take that opportunity and I hope that we shall lead the way.

Mr. Butler

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with the common agricultural policy is the uneven nature of compliance and enforcement in the different states within the European Union? Will he consider suggesting to his colleagues in Europe that the officials responsible for inspection, enforcement and compliance might operate on an exchange basis between countries, so that ours could assist other European countries while we could enjoy the regime that those countries have had hitherto?

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend makes a serious point, but I am not entirely sure that I should like to swap our inspectors for those from some other countries, even if it brought some benefits to our people. There is a real issue, and I shall certainly argue with the Commission that we need proper enforcement throughout the EU. Indeed, the subject will arise at the next Council, in relation to animal welfare.

Mr. Tyler

I, too, welcome the Minister; I also welcome his statement at the Conservative party conference that he is to set up a CAP policy group. Will he take advantage of the developing consensus in the House on the need for reform, and on some of the directions that such reform might take? Will he comment on his predecessor's statement that Set-aside is here and we must make the most of it"? Should we take that to mean that set-aside is here to stay on the current scale?

Mr. Waldegrave

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome. Although there is great expertise within my Ministry, I believe that there is no harm in seeking to ensure that we use everybody who can contribute on that important subject, both in this country and more widely. As for set-aside, in the long term we do not like such production control, either through quotas or through set-aside. We would rather move the emphasis towards lower prices, and getting production into balance with consumption. But while we have set-aside, surely we should use it for beneficial purposes. That is why I shall argue, for example, that forestry should be possible on set-aside land.

Mr. Nigel Evans

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government have a good record in emphasising the educational value of reducing tobacco consumption—that that is something to be commended—but that there is an inconsistency between that and the support for tobacco producers in the rest of the European Community?

Mr. Waldegrave

It will not surprise my hon. Friend to know that the tobacco regime is the part of the CAP that I, as a former Secretary of State for Health, like least. As well as its objectives being thoroughly unsatisfactory, it has been subject to considerable fraud. It seems entirely mad that we should spend money trying to persuade people not to smoke, while at the same time spending more money to subsidise the growing of tobacco.

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