HC Deb 18 July 1996 vol 281 cc1289-91
4. Mrs. Ann Winterton

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the future of the common agricultural policy. [36408]

6. Mr. David Shaw

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what steps his Department is taking to reduce the cost of the common agricultural policy. [36410]

Mr. Douglas Hogg

As is well known, the Government consider that the CAP needs reforming to reduce its costs to consumers and taxpayers, cut bureaucracy and facilitate EU enlargement. I have frequently impressed that view on the Commission. The forthcoming Commission initiatives on reform of the beef and dairy regimes will provide important opportunities to press for changes along those lines.

Mrs. Winterton

Bearing in mind the fact that British farms tend to be larger and more efficient than their European counterparts, what reassurance has my right hon. and learned Friend sought from Commissioner Fischler to ensure that further proposals for the reform of the CAP will not adversely discriminate against British farmers as they have so often done in the past?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is in fact the same point that my hon. Friend the Minister of State made in response to the question from our hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). It is true that UK farms on average are larger and therefore, if I might use the jargon, the policies of modulation work against our interests. I have taken every opportunity to impress that proposition upon Commissioner Fischler and the Agriculture Council in general.

Mr. Shaw

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the CAP accounts for one of the largest parts of our contribution to Europe and that that net contribution each year is some £3,000 million, which every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom has to pay out to farmers on the continent of Europe? Should not we find a way of bringing that cost down? Should not we aim to bring that cost down to zero in the next five years?

Mr. Hogg

I certainly agree that the overall cost of the common agricultural policy is too high and should be reduced. I think, too, that it has a number of other long-term and structural defects that justify its substantial reform. I think further that the negotiations that we are to have in the World Trade Organisation talks at the end of the century, with the policies of enlargement to which the Government are committed, will bring such pressures on the European common agricultural policy that it will have to be modified substantially.

Mr. Foulkes

Is the Minister aware of the overwhelming feeling of déjà vu that I feel at the moment having sat on these Benches for 17 years, hearing the same moaning questions from the Euro-sceptics on the Conservative Back Benches and the same tedious replies—not always as moderately expressed as they are by the present Minister—again and again? In fact, the common agricultural policy has not changed in the past 17 years. Is not the truth that the only way that we will get real change is with a change of Government?

Mr. Hogg

Forgive me for saying so, but that is just a policy of slapstick, and I can play it as well as the hon. Gentleman if I must, but I choose not to. The truth is that we have seen substantial reform over time. The 1992 reforms are of real significance, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has never really had the credit that he deserves for having achieved them. We are now seeing important evidence of change, for example, in the fruit and vegetable regime. Perhaps most significant was the report that Commissioner Fischler made last December to the Madrid council, when he made it absolutely plain that, for a variety of reasons—I do not have time to go into them—the status quo was not sustainable. There is now pressure for change from within, and the external factors to which I have referred will drive that forward.

Mrs. Golding

Will the Minister ask the Minister of State whether he remembers assuring European Standing Committee A on common agricultural policy compensation proposals that Britain was to have a comprehensive system of animal passports"—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 19 June 1996; c. 5.] by the end of this month? Was the Minister aware that the scheme was to apply only to cattle born since 1 July? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman ask the Minister of State why he thinks that this would have made a major contribution to the lifting of the ban on British beef?

Mr. Hogg

It is a slightly rum procedure that I should be asked to put a question to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, but no matter. Passports are important because we want to have a proper record. The position is that cattle born after 1 July must have passports. We started to issue passports for England and Wales on 15 July and will issue them for Scotland from 1 August. What that does not provide for, of course, is a computer-based record of movements. We are considering feasibility studies for that in the hope that we can have a comprehensive computer-based record of movements in place some time in the early part of next year.

Mr. Gill

Given the substantial vested interest in the common agricultural policy by other countries that are diametrically opposed to the interests of the agricultural industry in this country, does my right hon. and learned Friend not recognise that it is a triumph of hope over experience to think that the common agricultural policy will be reformed in a radical and meaningful way, and would it not therefore be more honest to say to the House and to the British nation that one is either in the common agricultural policy, warts and all, or one is out? Would that not be a more intellectually honest approach?

Mr. Hogg

I have never tried to conceal from the House that the process of reforming the common agricultural policy is extremely difficult. It is true that there is no appetite for change within the European Council, with the possible exception of the Government of Sweden.

But—and there are two important buts—first, the Commission and, I think, the majority of its members—certainly, Commissioner Fischler—now understand, as perhaps they always did, the importance of change. Secondly, the external pressures to which I have already referred—the WTO talks, and the pressure for enlargement—will, in my view, inevitably drive the policy of reform forward. I concede all that has been said about there being no appetite for change, and about hard pounding, but I believe that reform will happen, although less fast than my hon. Friend and I would wish.

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