HC Deb 20 May 2004 vol 421 cc1086-8
8. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

When she next expects to meet sugar beet growers to discuss reforms of the EU sugar beet regime. [174409]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)

Ministers frequently meet the National Farmers Union and other farming organisations to discuss a range of topical subjects, including sugar reform.

Mr. Bellingham

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply, but is she aware of the vital importance of sugar beet to Norfolk's rural economy? In fact, Norfolk grows about half of the beet grown in this country. Has she had a chance to reflect on the recent remarks of the noble Lord Whitty given in evidence to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? He seemed to say that he favours full liberalisation, but is that the Secretary of State's view. Does she agree that, if the Government are to opt for full—or, indeed, any— liberalization, it is vital to put in place a well thought out bioethanol programme? That alone can offer hope to Norfolk's beet growers.

Margaret Beckett

First, I do know about some of the remarks of my noble Friend. His point was that he did not believe that any of the options currently on the table—including the status quo—were fully viable. He was speculating about what might finally emerge from the balance of potential options. I take the hon. Gentleman's point about bioethanol and the possibilities for the future, but I was under the impression that the Conservative party was in favour of liberalisation. I believe that it was on 1 March that the Leader of the Opposition said: Rich countries should act in accordance with what they know to be true: free trade spreads prosperity, protectionism does not.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the common agricultural policy damages the third world most of all through what it does to the sugar trade? Does that not make a powerful case for the eventual abolition of the CAP? Should not sugar policy be repatriated to member states so that they can choose what they do with their sugar producers? Should we not aim to create a world in which we do not damage third-world producers?

Margaret Beckett

I certainly agree that it is important to try to make sure that we do not damage third-world producers, and any proposals that are made ultimately will have to be judged in part against that criterion. However, I am afraid that I do not share my hon. Friend's view that there should not be a common policy on agriculture. The Opposition took us into the European Community and passed the Single European Act, and one requirement of a single market is that there is some sort of co-operative marketing structure.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con)

Does the Secretary of State accept that, unlike other European producers, the UK produces only half of what it consumes, with the rest being imported from third-world countries? Does she agree, therefore, that any reform should take account of that fact, and that the EU might do well to look at the British model—that is, opening up its market to third-world countries while at the same time preserving a domestic sugar industry? Does she also agree that, as part of reform, the Government must help sugar growers to find new markets, of which the bioethanol market is certainly one?

Margaret Beckett

Certainly, any implications of new proposals would have to be examined carefully. However, although sugar producers, refiners and so on can make a very strong case, the sugar regime has remained basically unchanged for something like 35 years while every other regime has been reformed around it. It seems to me that a regime that demands a price for sugar that is twice the world price is not sustainable in the long term.

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