HL Deb 25 February 1991 vol 526 cc763-6

2.46 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will ensure that a senior Treasury Minister will accompany the Minister of Agriculture throughout the proceedings of the meeting of the EC Council of Ministers to be held on 4th and 5th March to consider the Commission's proposals to control the costs of the common agricultural policy, and whether the Treasury will accept full responsibility for any Council agreement that might be reached.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, Ministers attending Councils in Brussels represent the Government, not individual departments. Well-established machinery exists to ensure that the Government's position is properly coordinated beforehand and direct lines are available to deal with any problems that might arise during a Council meeting.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, unfortunately the noble Baroness, through no fault of her own, has completely evaded my Question, to which she could have answered yes or no in unequivocal terms. Is she aware that machinery was established by the European Commission in 1987 to ensure that Community expenditure on agriculture was kept under control? Is she further aware that that machinery provided that at meetings where increases in expenditure were envisaged members of the finance committee would attend simultaneously with members of the agriculture committee? In addition is she aware that, in contravention of the agreement reached by the British Prime Minister, Finance and Treasury Ministers have invariably absented themselves from meetings at which expenditure was to be discussed in order that Agriculture Ministers could go home and boast how well they had done for the farmers and Treasury Ministers could evade all responsibility?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I did not reply with a simple no or yes in courtesy to the noble Lord. In answer to the second part of his question, the Minister of Agriculture has been leading the fight in the Agriculture Council against excessive expenditure and for reform of the CAP. He certainly does not absent himself; nor do his colleagues who go to Brussels.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is it not a novel constitutional departure to suggest that any department of state should accept full responsibility in the shoes of government in a situation such as this, or indeed in any situation?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, as I said, when Ministers speak in Brussels they speak for the Government as a whole. The doctrine of collective responsibility applies in Brussels as well as in your Lordships' House.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, apart from all the constitutional niceties, can the noble Baroness say what action the Government are taking at that meeting to have something done about the £6,000 million worth of fraud a year in respect of the common agricultural policy?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, there is always full consultation between government Ministers before the councils of the European Community and the attending Minister is fully aware of all the policy issues, which include the prevention of fraud against the budget. I should also like to point out that there is a clear commitment on the part of this Government to fight fraud against the European budget.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does the Minister agree that while the European farming budget is increasing by more than 10 per cent., the incomes of British farmers are being reduced and many of them are going out of business? That is done in order to support smaller and less efficient farmers on the Continent, particularly in Germany and France. Under those circumstances do the Government agree that it would be far better if farming policy were repatriated to this country?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the United Kingdom welcomes the Commission's willingness to consider radical reform of the CAP but is concerned that current ideas could lead to an increase in CAP expenditure rather than a reduction. We are also concerned about the emphasis on the smallest farmers. In the United Kingdom even small family farms are generally larger than those in other member states and would be likely to fall outside most EC definitions of small farms. Repatriation is not an avenue that the Government favour.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, in view of the substantial increase in the forecast contribution by the United Kingdom to the Community budget for 1990–91, can the noble Baroness say whether Treasury Ministers are satisfied that they are in control of the situation? Secondly, are the Commission's current proposals for the reform of the CAP of such a nature that the United Kingdom in the end may pay more to an agricultural budget which benefits neither United Kingdom farmers nor its consumers?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the Government fully support the need for action to curb expenditure. I believe that I answered the second part of the noble Lord's question in my last answer.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, how can the Minister say that the Government are in favour of controlling agricultural expenditure when she knows perfectly well that at the meeting of the agriculture ministers to be held on 4th and 5th March some account will have to be taken of the gross excess, this year once again, over the budget limit fixed for the expenditure on agriculture? Will she call upon somebody in the ministry or elsewhere within the Government to read the evidence given to a Select Committee of your Lordships' House by the Commissioner, Mr. Christophersen (House of Lord's Paper No. 14, pages 45 and 46)? Will she then say whether or not the then Prime Minister has been successful in controlling agricultural expenditure and finances within the Community? Will she find out from her right honourable friend the Prime Minister whether he intends to exert any authority whatever over grossly excessive expenditure which falls very heavily indeed upon the United Kingdom taxpayer?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, there is no need for the noble Lord to shout at me. The United Kingdom's objectives for CAP reform are to make EC agriculture more market orientated and competitive, to reduce the cost of the CAP, to lead to closer integration between agriculture and the environment and to avoid discrimination between farmers in different member states.