HL Deb 22 March 1994 vol 553 cc585-7

2.57 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will take steps to urge upon the European Commission the necessity for the prompt publication and distribution of the report written for it by a team of agriculture academics including Professor Kenneth Thompson calling for the end of the common agricultural policy.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, I understand that this is an internal European Commission study on which work is not yet fully complete. Eventual publication is, of course, a matter for the Commission. If the Commission decides to make the study available I will have a copy placed in the Library of the House.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is it not remarkable that the Government know the history of the Rosetta Stone, the Cullinan Diamond and the Elgin Marbles but have no information as to the whereabouts or extent of this important report? Is the Minister telling the House that Her Majesty's Government, who are allegedly at the heart of Europe, cannot obtain from the Commission a copy of this report? Is he telling the House that the Commission is so powerful that it can prevent the document from being circulated—a document that has already been in the hands of some of the press—and that the Government cannot obtain it for the information of the House? If so, they may as well abandon government.

Earl Howe

My Lords, in the light of the noble Lord's Question I made inquiries about the report. I understand that it is an internal European Commission report and that it is not yet complete. Therefore, it would appear to be inappropriate to seek from the Commission a report that does not yet exist in its final form.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is it the Government's intention to secure that the report, when complete, is not suppressed and that it is made available to be seen by those concerned and those responsible?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the report covers long-term issues relating to the common agricultural policy. The Government have no difficulty about encouraging debate on the CAP and the issues which affect it. However, these are sensitive matters and we must be careful that any action we take does not in the event turn out to be counter-productive.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I am sure that the Government and the Minister are anxious about the enormous rise in agricultural expenditure within the Community. That expenditure rose from £30 billion in 1990 to £52 billion in 1993. I hope that the Government are concerned about that large increase. Is not the noble Earl anxious about rumours that the report, which has apparently been unanimously agreed by the experts, is being suppressed to suit the convenience of M. Jacques Delors, the president of the Commission, who intends to stand for the presidency of France? Will the noble Earl comment on those rumours and reports?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the Government's view is that the cost of the CAP is too high and that agricultural support should be brought down over a period of time. Support prices are already coming down as a result of CAP reform in 1992. We wish to see further reform. But the pace of that process must be judged extremely carefully. It will not help if we are clumsy or if we are seen to force the pace in an unrealistic way.

As regards the second part of the noble Lord's question, as I have explained, as far as we understand it, that study is not yet complete. I have no evidence to support the allegations put forward by the noble Lord that its publication is being suppressed by M. Delors or anyone else in the Commission.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, in order that we can better understand the possible significance of this possible report, could my noble friend inform the House of the present annual costs to the British taxpayer of the common agricultural policy and how much it adds to the average family's food bill each year? Could he also, in order to let us reach a decision on this matter, give us the annual costs to the Community budget of intervention, storage, export refund and set aside?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I shall gladly write to my noble friend with such detailed figures as are available. It is not possible to give a precise figure for the UK's contribution to the cost of the CAP. The UK contributes to the EC budget as a whole and that contribution is reduced by the Fontainebleau abatement. That abatement cannot be attributed to particular sectors of the EC budget.

With regard to the cost of the CAP to consumers in the United Kingdom, various figures have been bandied about but most of them are misleading because they are based on the difference between EC prices and those on world markets. But if EC prices were reduced, it is likely that world prices would strengthen in response to that. Therefore, any estimates which my noble friend may have read should be treated with extreme caution.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the report in question is supposed to call for the end of the common agricultural policy. Is the Minister aware that the European Union stretches from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and from the Atlantic to Poland and that there are vast differences in agricultural systems across that land mass? Does the Minister agree that it is not possible to run a centralised system from Brussels which is targeted down to the last hectare of land as regards set aside or the last litre of milk quota, which is not fraud ridden? Does the Minister agree that if there is a policy in Europe which is crying out for subsidiarity, it is agricultural policy?

Earl Howe

My Lords, if you believe in the single market, you need common rules to make it work. Without common rules, there is no level playing-field in Europe. To take the action advocated by the noble Lord would be incompatible with that principle.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, the noble Earl said to the House that he understands that the report is not complete. Is the noble Earl aware that those of us who have had some experience of Brussels and the way in which the Community works know that that really means that the Commission is still trying to alter the report to suit its own convenience, as it did with regard to one Court of Auditors' report? Will the noble Earl give the House an undertaking that he will get that report quickly from the Commission so that it can be in the possession of the Government and the House?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I should be happy to pass on the noble Lord's strength of feeling to my right honourable friend and I have no doubt that she will take appropriate action.