HC Deb 23 February 1995 vol 255 cc477-9
13. Mr. Mackinlay

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he will next be meeting his opposite numbers in the European Union to discuss the European Union agricultural policy.

Mr. Waldegrave

I met the other European Agriculture Ministers at the Agriculture Council earlier this week. The next Agriculture Council is scheduled for 27 and 28 March.

Mr. Mackinlay

How is it that, since the previous Labour Government went out of office, the cost of the common agricultural policy has increased by 58 per cent., putting an additional £20 burden on British families? When will the Minister join my hon. Friend the shadow Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in calling for a root and branch reform of the CAP? When will he cut out all this Mr. Nice Guy and go to Brussels and tell them that we are not going to have it any more; enough is enough, and this kind of profligate public expenditure is unacceptable to ordinary British taxpayers?

Mr. Waldegrave

I am pleased to hear a member of the Labour party saying that profligate public expenditure is out of order. His neighbours on the Front Bench below the Gangway looked a little nervous at that point. The previous Labour Government supported a CAP that was generating huge surpluses, which have now been largely disposed of. They short-changed the British farmer with the monetary compensation amounts to a really acute degree. For example, our milk quota is less than it should be because they short-changed our dairy farmers in the late 1970s and our production fell. That is why we were not able to negotiate a better quota.

Mr. John Greenway

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his proposals for the CAP review group, which is now established, have been warmly welcomed by farmers in north Yorkshire? They recognise that there needs to be further reform of the CAP, but will my right hon. Friend take note that they will not support any further changes in CAP reform that discriminate against British farmers and that there are in any event enough sectors—such as sugar beet quota, which is due for reform—where they are already disadvantaged with regard to other European farmers?

Mr. Waldegrave

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State has said, we will fight for fair treatment of sugar producers. We are not producing the surpluses that cause the problem, and we should therefore not be penalised when the matter is dealt with.

Following the farrago of nonsense from the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), I forgot to point out that it is absurd not to recognise that, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the British Government have taken the lead in working for reform of the common agricultural policy. We shall continue to do that.

Dr. Strang

May I point out to the Minister that it was a Conservative Government who introduced milk quotas? Labour had long since lost office.

Will the Minister now admit that we were right to warn his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), that the 1992 MacSharry reforms were hopelessly inadequate? Surely the Minister appreciates that the current proposals for reform of the sugar and wine regimes—both in huge structural surplus—fall far short of what is required. Moreover, is it not clear from the latest European Commission price proposals that the Commission is simply not prepared to redress the huge cost of the beef and dairy sectors? When will the Government take a decisive stand on the common agricultural policy?

Mr. Waldegrave

It is a bit ironic to be teased by the hon. Gentleman on that subject. I know very well that the milk quotas started during a period of Conservative Government; they were imposed on us then. My point, however—a real point—was that the short-changing of the dairy industry under the last Labour Government had damaged production in this country, which meant that our base-year figure was much lower than it would otherwise have been.

If the hon. Gentleman had read the newspapers recently, he would know that I have made the point about this year's price review in almost the same terms as him, although on the basis—I hope—of slightly more knowledge. The review does not go far enough, although there is a useful cut in the intervention price for butter. We need further steady cuts in underlying price support; otherwise, in due course, we shall face very serious problems with the common agricultural policy, which will have to be dealt with on an emergency basis. That would be a much less good way of handling the matter.

Sir Teddy Taylor

The Government were congratulated from all sides when they secured agricultural spending limits at the Edinburgh summit. Will the Minister tell us what we are to do now that the EC has published a budget for 1995 that exceeds the legal spending limits by £1,000 million?

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that agricultural spending is running well below the guideline. That shows that the MacSharry reforms—although I have many criticisms of them—have probably been more successful in limiting over-production than people predicted at the time, and surpluses have diminished as a result. This year we shall be well within the FEOGA guideline.