HL Deb 25 April 2002 vol 634 cc359-62

3.9 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they will produce a formal response to the report of the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food, indicating how they intend to take forward the recommendations therein; and whether they have calculated the costs of doing so.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Government propose to produce a strategy for sustainable food in farming in England in the early autumn. The strategy will incorporate a definitive response to the policy commission's recommendations, although not all those fall to, or involve expenditure by, the Government. The Government will also be in a position to quantify the total cost of delivering the strategy once the 2002 spending review has been concluded.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, and I know he is working hard to ensure quick progress on some parts of the strategy. However, people in rural communities find it depressing that last week's Budget failed to mention the pump-priming money that is so urgently needed to ensure that progress is made this summer. There has also been no evidence so far that the DTI plans to enforce the supermarket code although such action is desperately needed. I hope that other government departments mentioned in the report—such as the Department for Education and Skills, in relation to apprenticeships—will sign up to the strategy with the same enthusiasm which the Minister says his department feels. How often are the various departments meeting, and are they as committed to the strategy as his department?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, following through on the Curry commission report is a matter for the Government as a whole. Therefore, all the departments to which the noble Baroness referred are engaged in determining how best to deliver the report's various recommendations, and are submitting proposals involving spending to the spending review. The Government's approach was symbolised by the fact that, a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister himself held a seminar on the report. It has never been indicated that expenditure on the proposals would be allocated in the Budget; indeed, the report was timed so that it could feed into the 2002 spending review. That point has always been clear, from the report's commencement to its issue.

Lord Williamson of Horton

My Lords, while welcoming his positive reply as far as it goes, does the Minister agree that the Curry commission also recommended that, in the brave new world without subsidies, the Government should be prepared to support the development of basic safety net aids at EU level"? If the Minister is to perform on the high wire, will he remember the importance of a safety net for British agriculture?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the only place where I perform on the high wire is in your Lordships' House. Nevertheless, other forms of acrobatics have to take place in negotiations on the common agricultural policy. One dimension of the CAP is the form of support provided in adjusting the present financial regime and in the longer-term development of that regime, and that may well include safety net support. The medium-term review has to face up to a huge number of issues. The Commission intends to present its review proposals in June, and the negotiations should be extremely interesting thereafter.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I declare my direct interest as an organic farmer. Will the Government's strategy give full weight to the benefits of organic farming, particularly sustainability, being friendly to the environment and to animals, and replacing imports?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, sustainability in organic farming and improved sustainability in conventional farming is a key theme of the Curry commission report and the Government's response. There is a specific commitment to an action plan to support organic farming, the full details of which are due to be completed by July.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, in answering a previous question, the Minister seemed to say that the Government will not reply to the Curry report until the autumn. The Comprehensive Spending Review, however, will be in July. Does that mean that no money will be allocated until after the autumn? If so, a dreadful message will be sent to those in the countryside who are looking forward to rebuilding confidence and reestablishing their businesses. What is the position if that process cannot begin until July 2003?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness is unduly confusing herself about the time scale. The 2002 spending review should be completed at about the end of July, although the details may not be finalised until September. We shall draw up the spending dimension of the overall strategy in the light of those final details. Besides the spending dimension, the strategy will also have significant aspects for my department, other departments and the industry itself. We shall bring all those aspects together in a strategy that we shall issue in the autumn.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, in his first reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, the Minister mentioned sustainable agriculture. Does he agree that animal health is a very important part of sustainable agriculture? Can he please explain why there has been such a severe cut in staff at the Worcester office that they cannot cope with the TB paperwork, so that TB tests are being delayed in an area where TB is now rife?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the two aspects of the question are not really connected. The change in the Worcester staffing levels, on both the veterinary and administrative sides, reflects a rationalisation of the former MAFF regions to create the new structure. The TB situation is concerning, and there has inevitably been a back log in dealing with TB during the foot and mouth outbreak. Resources are now being deployed and prioritised to address the issue.

Earl Peel

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in welcoming many aspects of the Curry report, we have to accept the fact that, by transferring money that would go to supporting agriculture from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2, farmers generally will be deprived within rural communities, and only those fortunate enough to subscribe to the various agri-environmental schemes will benefit? I hope he will agree that the real way forward is to green Pillar 1 and make it common across Europe so that the whole of agriculture can genuinely benefit.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as the noble Earl knows, this is a complicated issue. It may well be that some of the CAP negotiations will involve some flexibility in greening Pillar 1 as well as a transfer from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2. However, the transfer from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 does not of itself disadvantage farmers as the noble Earl suggests. First, if the current rules on Pillar 2 remain, they will require matched funding, entailing a larger sum for rural and environmental development. Secondly, as it concerns land management, farmers and other landowners will be the principal beneficiaries of the environmental dimension of Pillar 2. Thirdly, if we can get the broad and shallow scheme envisioned by Curry agreed as an appropriate Pillar 2 mechanism within Europe, it will reward farmers who already meet good environmental practice rather than those who enhance their practice as required by the current agri-environment schemes.