HC Deb 30 April 1998 vol 311 cc442-3
3. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

What assessment he has made of the impact on consumers of the current CAP reforms. [39109]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Dr. John Cunningham)

We estimate that the lower support prices proposed by the European Commission would mean that UK consumers would save around £1 billion a year, equivalent to a 2 per cent. reduction in retail food bills.

Mr. Chaytor

I thank my right hon. Friend. I also congratulate the Government on their work to reform the CAP. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the net effect of the CAP over many years has been to cut jobs in rural areas, to reduce the diversification of wildlife and to encourage the dangerous intensification of agriculture? Can he assure the House that the Government will continue to press for reforms that adopt an integrated approach to rural areas, stressing rural development, the rural economy and environmental protection? What plans does he have, in particular, to encourage more farmers to switch to organic farming?

Dr. Cunningham

On the latter point, I have already announced an interim package of measures to bring more assistance to organic farming, and to fund more research. That has been welcomed by the Soil Association and others. I had the pleasure to be the first Agriculture Minister in this country ever to address the Soil Association's annual conference, which was one of the many omissions of the previous Administration over 18 years.

As for wider reform of the CAP, I agree with my hon. Friend that we must seek to free our farmers from some of the worst restrictions imposed on them by the CAP, to enable them to be more competitive and to take advantage of global markets. We must also transfer resources away from such things as headage payments, and towards environmental support and investment in rural economies.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

I congratulate the Minister on 12 years of occupancy—[Laughter.] I mean 12 months. I have obviously been listening too much to the Foreign Secretary. Let me congratulate the Minister on his 12 months in office.

Will the Minister confirm that in those 12 months, the prices of nearly every agricultural product have fallen considerably—beef by 10 per cent., sheep by 34 per cent., milk by about 20 per cent. and wheat by 21 per cent.? Next week's threatened further 2.5 per cent. revaluation of the green pound will cost the industry another £70 million or £80 million. How much of that has been of real benefit to the consumer? Will the Minister admit that his first 12 months of stewardship of agriculture have led to the biggest agricultural crisis for decades?

Dr. Cunningham

I am overwhelmed by the hon. Gentleman's prognosis, but underwhelmed by his inaccuracy about what has happened. As the Select Committee on Agriculture has confirmed to the House, the biggest crisis to hit agriculture this century was the BSE crisis bequeathed to the Government and the country by the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that consumers will, more than anything, welcome greater localised supply, particularly of organic products? Will he join me in condemning the United States Department of Agriculture's redefinition of organic food? Will he ensure that the European Union, as part of its reforms, sets its own standards in this area?

Dr. Cunningham

Yes. We shall certainly safeguard the very high standards required of organic produce in this country. We shall do much more than the previous Administration to promote the growth of organic farming. We inherited from that Administration a contribution of only 0.3 per cent. of organic farming in this country, the worst record of any Government in the European Union. We shall do much better than that.

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