HC Deb 30 April 1998 vol 311 cc449-50
9. Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

What assessment he has made of the EU Commission's proposals for national envelopes as part of the reform of the common agricultural policy. [39116]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

We welcome the principle that member states should be allowed to target a proportion of agricultural support in accordance with national priorities. We need to ensure that the UK's share of moneys allocated to that exercise is fair and appropriate.

Mr. Walter

That is a slightly disappointing answer, because the danger of national envelopes is that the European Union will become an even less level playing field. Will the Minister assure us that, if that scheme were to come into existence, national envelopes would not be used as a substitute for existing national programmes of support, which would mean that farmers would not receive any additional support from those national envelopes and would leave British agriculture in an even less competitive position?

Mr. Morley

Conservative Members face a dichotomy on issues of that sort: on the one hand, they argue for maximum subsidiarity and, on the other, when there is an opportunity for member states to have more flexibility and autonomy in the way in which European funding is spent, that causes them concern. We are aware of the danger of the approach in terms of distortion of competition and we shall take that danger seriously.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will not national envelopes encourage the farming industry to accept the realities of life which they are so reluctant to accept, which are that the markets for many existing products are diminishing and that farmers must diversify into areas for which there are better markets and which will employ more people? Those areas are organic farming—we currently import most products—flax growing, coppicing and the growing of fuel crops.

Mr. Morley

My hon. Friend makes the important point that the idea behind national envelopes is to move away from direct production support, which is one of our objectives as a Government, and instead redirect money toward environmental and socio-economic support and support for alternative crops of the sorts which he mentions.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Given that previous CAP reforms have often served to increase both the volume and complexity of the forms that British farmers have to fill in, will the Minister have a word with his officials and tell them that farmers who openly admit errors, honestly committed and arising from simple misunderstanding, should not be penalised when they make representations to Ministers to ask for the facts to be corrected? In that way, farmers will not lose out, as happens time and again when they honestly admit having made a mistake.

Mr. Morley

The rules on penalties for farmers who make a mistake in filling in forms are European Union rules, so we have limited flexibility in that respect. However, we are giving consideration to the issue.