HC Deb 21 November 2000 vol 357 cc1-24WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Clelland.]

10 am

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I am extremely grateful to have been given the opportunity to introduce this debate. The issues involved are urgent and require immediate attention, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to the many that will be raised. As I shall illustrate, time is of the essence. The European Union sugar regime is an all-party issue and representations have been made about it from many political parties. Four former Agriculture Ministers and the former Chairman of the Agriculture Committee are present, as are its current Chairman and many hon. Members with a deep interest in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries in the developing world. The issue is truly broad-ranging.

The European Union sugar regime covers both domestic EU beet sugar and cane sugar production. In addition, a fixed quota of cane sugar imports is provided, principally from the African, Caribbean and Pacific—or ACP—countries. That access is provided for by the Cotonou agreement that succeeded the Lomé convention. The objectives of the regime are to ensure stability of employment and production for EU and ACP producers. The regime is usually reviewed every five years, the next review to be completed before 1 July 2001.

Everyone present and those involved in the sugar industries agree that the sugar regime must be reviewed and updated regularly. Indeed, in October this year, the European Commission proposed that it should be extended, with some changes, for two years from 1 July 2001, while studies were undertaken on the scope for reform. However, in September this year, the Commission also published proposals to include sugar in the list of commodities that should be allowed duty-free, quota-free access to European Union markets for the 48 least developed countries in the world. Most significantly, the EBA—everything but arms—initiative is to be introduced through amendments to the European Union's generalised system of preferences, so it will not be considered by Agriculture Ministers or the European Parliament, but by the General Affairs Council. Thus, the impact on agriculture domestically, and in the ACP countries, has not been debated by the European Parliament, nor has there been consultation about it.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the European Commission has authorised an impact study, which is to be concluded and presented to the General Affairs Council by the end of November? Does she agree that that means that there will be no time for adequate consultation with either the beet sugar producers or the ACP countries?

Mrs. Shephard

I agree. Moreover, there is equal consternation about it among beet sugar producers in this country and other EU countries, as well as cane sugars producers in the ACP countries, many of which figure on the list of 48 least developed countries. We know that from a meeting that was arranged most helpfully last week by my hon. Friend. Other hon. Members will want to address the impact of such an undemocratic approach on the economies of the ACP countries.

The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott),who is here, attended the meeting that we had last week, at which she explained graphically her views on the way in which the matter is being handled. The ACP countries have made many representations through their own Governments to the Commission, the French presidency and our Government, describing the effect that the EBA initiative would have on their sugar industries. In some cases, it would threaten already fragile economies with total disaster.

Of course, there is broad agreement that adjustments to trade agreements over time should help the least developed countries. However, the initiative is hasty and ill thought out, combining disaster for the United Kingdom sugar beet industry with almost no improvement or, in some cases, a worsening of circumstances for the cane sugar industry in ACP and other countries. Worst of all—the Minister may be able to dispel the impression—the way in which the initiative is being introduced seems to deny proper democratic scrutiny and accountability.

The Minister will be aware of the importance of the sugar beet industry to agriculture in this country. The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office could not be here today but, by most ingenious means, he took the opportunity to state his concern about the problem in last night's debate on procedures. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) is also unable to be here, because he is occupied by his role as a member of the Treasury Committee. If they had been able to attend, the cross-party representation at this debate would have been even larger.

A study by Reading university published by British Sugar states that 23,000 jobs in the United Kingdom depend on the beet sugar industry. In my own constituency, the Wissington sugar factory, which the Minister is to visit, accounts directly for 320 jobs, and 6,000 more in the wider economy. That figure includes producers, hauliers and other service providers.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

It may help my right hon. Friend if I remind her that that figure is larger than the number of jobs recently at stake at Longbridge.

Mrs. Shephard

That point will not be lost on the Minister.

The other sugar factory in the region, at Cantley, is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) and directly employs 180 people. About 3,500 jobs are dependent on that factory.

The two factories together take beet from a total of 2,700 producers and account for almost 40 per cent. of United Kingdom beet sugar production.

The beet industry is the cornerstone of the increasingly fragile agricultural economy in East Anglia—an economy that has recently been weakened by the impact of swine fever. A survey published in the Eastern Daily Press on 18 September shows that farm incomes have fallen by 50 per cent. in the past four years, even before the effects of swine fever and fuel taxes are taken into account. That figure also takes no account of the impact of rushing through European Union proposals for sugar beet. I am sure that the Minister will agree that an industry in which many farmers earn less than the national minimum wage is hardly in a position to take more hammer blows, but those blows will be delivered unless she and the Government can stop the proposals taking effect.

British Sugar and the National Farmers Union have calculated that, under the EBA proposals, every tonne of sugar entering the European Union will result in a 1 tonne quota cut. That could ultimately result in a 25 to 40 per cent. quota cut affecting European Union and ACP producers. The weakness of the euro has already resulted in a 30 per cent. reduction in beet and sugar sterling prices, and sugar support prices have fallen by about a third since 1996. The senior agronomist at the Morley agricultural research centre, which I am sure is known to the Minister, has written to me to say that the one crop that is still making reasonable money is sugar beet, and quota-free sugar from poorer countries is likely to reduce the British farmers quota by up to 40 per cent. This would decimate the UK sugar industry and UK growers.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the contribution that the sugar beet crop makes to crop rotation in an arable sector that has been badly damaged, especially in north Yorkshire?

Mrs. Shephard

I certainly am aware of that. My hon. Friend's intervention is useful because it allows me to take more time to discuss the matter that she has explained so well.

The agronomist continues: Sugar factories have already been rationalised to meet lower demands and this would undoubtedly result in further closures. I agree. I cannot see any alternative. Which of the two Norfolk factories does the Minister think should close? Wissington factory in my constituency is the largest in Europe and, with a great deal of investment, has recently been expanded by 50 per cent. The Cantley factory is close to Great Yarmouth, which has recently had a large and welcome injection of cash to help with its deprived status. Would the closure of the Cantley factory help that?

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to stress that the impact of the measures could apply throughout the country. As she knows, the Bardney sugar beet factory lies within my constituency: Norfolk is not the only area affected. I am sure that she will also want to point out that, should the measure go ahead, the impact on farmers throughout Lincolnshire could be very grave indeed.

Mrs. Shephard

My constituent, Mr. Archibald, of Wimbotsham, wrote to the Prime Minister, and makes the point for all those affected when he says: Time is not on our side. I understand the first meeting of the General Affairs Council when EBA may be discussed is due to commence on November 20th, so your prompt action is requested. Agriculture is an industry under…threat. These two proposals could easily destroy one of the last crops worth growing. With it…many lives and futures. Mine included. That is a bleak cry indeed, and one to which I hope that the Minister will respond.

Like other hon. Members, I have received many letters from farmers, hauliers and others whose lives would be affected by the decimation of the sugar beet industry. All stress that they understand that help must be extended to the economies of the world's poorest countries. However, they also understand that unless more time and consideration is given to the EBA proposals, sugar production will be damaged, not only in the UK but in the rest of the EU and the ACP countries, and in a way that would not improve the economies of the less developed developing countries.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Does the right hon. Lady agree that, given that the pretext for EBA is to help the least developed countries, it is a huge irony that it will capsize the economies of very many poor countries, in relation not only to sugar but to rum and bananas. That makes nonsense of the supposed justification.

Mrs. Shephard

The hon. Lady makes her point very effectively, as usual. It is echoed by Mr. Stephen Collett, of Garboldisham, who writes: The only real winners would be the confectionery and soft drinks manufacturers. The losers would be UK and other EU farmers and the environment and economies in some of the most sensitive parts of the world. Mr. Gooderham, of Kenninghall, writes: Unless these proposals are modified, I see sugar factories closing down and most sugar beet farmers giving up growing beet. The consequences for employment would be catastrophic. In our case, over half our staff would be made redundant as sugar beet is the most labour intensive. I cannot believe that the Minister is so short sighted as to close down a whole industry.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Will my right hon. Friend also take the opportunity to acknowledge that there is no natural correlation between reductions in the price paid to producers and reductions in the price paid by consumers? Since 1996, although sugar prices have gone down in the sense that producers are paid less, the price of products has risen.

Mrs. Shephard

That is exactly right. Consumers have not benefited in any way. I am sure that the Minister will take that point, and explain what the Government intend.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

As a former Agriculture Minister, does my right hon. Friend recognise that although sugar beet factories are closing in her part of East Anglia, there is a greater threat to the remaining factories in the west midlands, where the industry is more fragile and where farmers' incomes depend on sugar beet to an equally great extent?

Mrs. Shephard

I agree.

The impact of the proposals is more than serious. My constituent, Mr. Wright, of Brettenham, says: These proposals will have a very serious impact on employment in agriculture and the other industries allied to the sugar crop. We at present employ 5 tractor drivers and 2 lorry drivers. These would be drastically reduced. It is already concerning to us how many people have left agriculture recently, this will only compound the matter if the above is implemented.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

It may help my right hon. Friend to know that, according to a survey of Members of Parliament conducted only last week, the proposals will directly or indirectly affect approximately 150 constituencies across all parties.

Mrs. Shephard

That is a good point that the Minister will note. She will already have noted that this Adjournment debate is unusually highly attended. The figure that my hon. Friend cites will make her realise that a high level of anxiety is spread throughout the House.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

As a grower of sugar beet, I know only too well the fragile economies of the areas that will be affected by the proposals. Given those fragile circumstances, and that Great Britain has the largest sugar trade deficit of any European country, will my right hon. Friend press the Minister to ensure that, if the proposals are to be adopted, this country should at least have a derogation to allow time for implementation?

Mrs. Shephard

The essence of the matter is time. I hope that the Minister will explain why the proposal seems to have jumped over the review and study on the future of the sugar regime and why it seems to be being fast-tracked through EU procedures without being considered by the European Parliament and subjected to proper democratic and accountable scrutiny. I am sure that that will worry her, but she may have some words of comfort for us. She will certainly hear expressions of anxiety, not only from colleagues with agricultural constituencies, but, as the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington has demonstrated and the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) will demonstrate, from other colleagues who are worried about employment in their constituencies or the impact of the proposals on developing countries.

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

As my right hon. Friend knows, my constituency contains many sugar beet growers. Those growers are entirely dependent for the future of their farms on the sugar beet crop, as every other crop that they grow is losing money.

Mrs. Shephard

I hope that the Minister will reassure us that she and her colleagues at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will consider the impact on our domestic agricultural economy and that they will at least press for time for that impact to be measured and taken into account before the proposals are pushed through the European Union. I hope that she will tell us what her Ministry's stance is on the matter and what she intends to do or has done to prevent such an undemocratic change being steamrollered through the EU machinery. Is her Ministry's view at odds or in tune with the overall Government stance? As she will hear today, a great deal hangs on her answers.

10.18 am
Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) on having secured the debate. As a fellow Norfolk representative, I am sure that the size of our postbags on the subject has been comparable. I have had more letters in a shorter time on this issue than on any I can remember, including fox hunting. It is clear that major anxiety is felt.

Norfolk produces a large proportion of the nation's sugar beet. A mixture of fact and extrapolation—as I suspect and hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will reassure us that it is—means that farmers believe that their livelihoods will be threatened imminently. It is clear from my postbag that that is the farmers' impression. I have received at least 60 letters from farmers who grow sugar beet, expressing the full range of opinions, some of which, I suspect, come from the excellent briefing pack that I received from the National Farmers Union and British Sugar. I hope that my right hon. Friend will assure us that the issue will be addressed at a time when events can be influenced rather than merely complained about.

It would bore hon. Members if I were to quote from many letters, so I have selected a few that illustrate the range of problems for my constituents. I received a letter from Dave Rust, a farm manager of Parsonage farm in Magdalen. He points out that his farm could lose a sizeable chunk of its income, and that alternatives to the sugar beet crop would be much less labour intensive. I received a plea from the heart from Robert Fox, who has one of two farms in my constituency, in East Rudham. He says that because farming is in its worst ever depression and that the proposals will ruin farmers' business and cost the nation thousands of jobs. He also presses me to do everything that I can. I am here now to make sure that the Government understand that need.

I received a letter from Ian Roy, the director of Cradle Hall Farms Ltd. in Burnham Market. He points out not only the dramatic drop in price, which could be expected, but that the consumer—who might be seen as the beneficiary of such proposals—is unlikely to benefit. He writes: If the argument is to bring down the cost of sugar to the consumer this is not valid as time and time again when the prices we receive for our produce have reduced these have not been passed on. In fact the value of our Sugar Beet crop has dropped by over 30 per cent. since 1996 but the cost of products that use the vast proportion of Sugar has risen: by 4.8 per cent. on cakes and biscuits, by 7.7 per cent. on soft drinks and by 9.9 per cent. on sweets and chocolate. As you can see we are yet again forced to accept a smaller slice of the pie having already had to swallow price cuts on grain and milk, this cannot go on. I agree. The timing of proposals that would damage the sugar beet industry in my constituency could not be worse. My right hon. Friend will be aware of that, because, at my invitation, she was kind enough to spend seven or eight hours in my constituency last week. She met a range of farmers who expressed similar views to those that I have quoted this morning.

I want to quote one more letter, which illustrates, by example, a point already made this morning, that not only those who are directly employed on the farm will be affected and there are many knock-on implications for jobs. Many jobs other than growing or processing sugar beet will be at risk. At the beginning of this month, I received a letter from Nigel Mountain, who pointed out the danger to his small, family-run, rurally based manufacturing company, which my right hon. Friend was unable to visit last week. The company is an important part of the village of Harpley—which is very small and has had to fight to maintain its village school for many years—providing employment in the village so that people do not have to travel to nearby industrial estates. It has been there for 200 years, and for the past 50 years it has served mainly the sugar industry by supplying specialised equipment such as cleaners and loaders. It provides the majority of the United Kingdom market with that equipment, which accounts for 75 per cent. of the company's turnover.

Last week, I went with my right hon. Friend the Minister to see Nigel Mountain, who realises that small companies must look to the future and be willing to change and to introduce new equipment and methods. His company initiative has recently been awarded a Government grant and we were delighted to meet students and staff at the Anglia Polytechnic university, which is involved in a joint scheme with the company in applying new technology to sugar beet cleaners and loaders. I want that small company to be protected and I ensured that my right hon. Friend could see for herself that we in Norfolk are not asking to live in the past, glorious though that may be in agriculture. We are willing to change, but problems would arise if what we have heard this morning were to come to fruition and draconian changes in the sugar regime were introduced quickly and without amelioration.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will assure us that the Government's position is not what some of those who have written to me have been led to believe—that the Government are firmly behind the everything but arms proposals. Last week, we visited John Askew at his farm at St. John's Fen End where we met a number of representatives and members of the National Farmers Union. They spelt out the practical implications in detail and my right hon. Friend provided some reassurance, which I hope will be repeated this morning. We also met others who are concerned and I was pleased that Sir Jeremy Bagge, who chairs the agricultural group that is examining the shaping the future agenda in Norfolk, was able to join us in the evening with Richard High, the west Norfolk economic development officer, to explain the general nature of the problem for our community. It has attracted 5b funding in the past but is disappointed that it received only transitional funding under the current regime.

Mr. Prior

Was it agreed during the hon. Gentleman's discussions that if there were any reduction of quota in Europe, it should fall on those countries that produce a surplus and not on countries such as Britain, which has a deficit in its production?

Dr. Turner

That was a helpful intervention, because I intended to make that point. It was emphasised on several occasions and I believe that my right hon. Friend Minister was the first to say that the United Kingdom has something to gain from reform of the EU regime. Anyone who has examined the mix of the A, B and C quotas and tried to understand their logic will understand that there is little logic in the existing situation. I accept—as have the Government—that reform is needed, because the sugar industry was not among those reformed in the earlier rounds and its regime is due to expire at the end of this calendar year. That is why consultation is taking place.

As the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) reminded us, the British economy is already one of the largest importers of sugar. We produce only about 50 per cent. of our nation's sugar. Last week, we were given figures showing that some European nations produce well over 100 per cent.—in some cases approaching 200 per cent.—of the quantity of sugar that they consume.

Although we are rightly concerned with our constituents' interests in respect of the effects of change, we must recognise the need for changes, some of which we may not want. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister can assure us of the strength of the case for British farmers. Accepting the fact that a substantial proportion of our sugar is already imported is a strong negotiating hand. Sufficient time and care must be taken in introducing any changes. If European Union imports are to displace home production, we should be at the back, not the front, of the queue for having to reduce local production. I hope that the Government will be batting on the side of Norfolk farmers during arguments about reform within the EU.

My brief is to represent the sugar beet industry in Norfolk. However, I am impressed by the number of people who have gone out of their way, angry as they are, to write to me to say that they want help to be given to the least developed nations. That was the mood of the meeting last week. We should find a way forward that produces a system that British farmers can cope with and adjust to, but that does not lead to the Caribbean nations being brought down from a little above least developed status into impoverishment.

It is unfortunate that the debate was delayed for so long that we are now close to the end of the current regime. It seems to be in the nature of politics that difficult decisions and proper debate are left until change is imminent.

This is a difficult and complicated issue that requires careful consideration. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will assure me that the interests of my constituents will be carefully looked after. Farming in west Norfolk has suffered—she heard about the problems in person last week—and is not in a position to have further blows inflicted on it. Reforms must be made with care, giving proper time for adjustment.

10.34 am
Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

I declare an interest, which appears in the register. I am a non-executive director of Associated British Foods, the parent company of British Sugar. That gives me a clear insight into the issues on that side of the industry. However, I speak today from the farmers' point of view, because, like other right hon. and hon. Members, my constituency contains a large number of sugar beet growers, for which Norfolk is one of the main counties.

Because this is a short debate, I shall not repeat the points that were made so admirably by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). In light of the comments made by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner), I am glad that there is an all-party approach to the matter. However, I want to explore as fully as possible one or two points that have been raised.

I stress to the Minister—and I am sure that she fully understands this—that the current state of farming is desperate. I have represented my South Norfolk constituency for 27 years, and like other former Ministers who are here today, I cannot recall when there has been such despair and uncertainty about the future of farming. We have often had to face uncertainty in the past, but even hitherto optimistic farmers are telling me that they do not know where agriculture is going and that matters are getting desperate. The problem is linked to the relationship between the euro and sterling, and the subsequent effect on prices. That has contributed to some of the difficulties in the past few years.

Few farmers are making any money on any crop except sugar beet. As my right hon. Friend said, the price of sugar beet has already fallen by 30 per cent., and the loss of a crop that is important to the technological aspect of agriculture would also have serious consequences. The plain fact is that if the Lamy proposals go through, the only crop from which farmers currently make a profit will cease to be profitable. That would be a desperate situation for any industry to face. She also pointed out that 23,000 jobs are at risk, but because they are scattered across the country, the problem is not recognised in the same way as the collapse of a firm in the west midlands, for example. Nevertheless, the proposals will have serious consequences for rural areas. Unless the matter is resolved, one can forget most of the proposals in the rural White Paper. The problem is extremely serious.

My constituency contains one of the biggest pig farming areas in Britain, and the Minister will know that many of its pig farms have unfortunately been affected by swine fever. Like other hon. Members, I am receiving desperate letters and representations.

I am astonished that the Lamy proposals have advanced through the EU processes without recognition of the serious implications for the ACP countries and the future of sugar beet in the EU. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food understands that issue, but other UK Departments do not. The EBA proposal would undercut and undermine efforts to reform the sugar regime. We have to debate such reform, but if this proposal goes through in December, we can forget it. The proposal would have the most significant impact on the entire sugar beet industry and the ACP countries.

Miss McIntosh

Rather than taking one product in isolation, would not it be more appropriate to consider the matter as part of a review of the common agricultural policy as a whole?

Mr. MacGregor

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and I shall consider that briefly in the context of reform of the sugar regime.

Unless the Government take a strong position in the General Affairs Council in December, we can ignore and forget much of what will happen in respect of the sugar regime, because the damage will have been done. We are discussing the possibility of a 25 to 40 per cent. reduction in UK sugar beet production. I am glad that the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) has re-entered the Chamber, because last week's meeting with the EC ACP spokesman impressed me. The interests of the ACP countries are aligned with those of the UK sugar beet producers. In fact, matters are worse for the ACP countries and their economies will be decimated. I am astonished that that point has not yet been made properly in the European debate.

Mr. Luff

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, perversely, including sugar in EBA could help those countries that we might not wish to assist? Countries such as Sudan will benefit at the expense of our traditional friends in the Caribbean.

Mr. MacGregor

That is absolutely right. I am not sure that many of the countries at which the EBA proposal is aimed will benefit. I would not be surprised if some international traders were to find ways through the new proposals, which would have a bad effect on the ACP countries without benefiting the least developed countries.

Mr. Keith Simpson

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as has been said, it is incredible that the European Parliament has been unable to debate the matter? That point was also made by our colleague, Robert Sturdy, who is a Member of the European Parliament.

Mr. MacGregor

I entirely agree. I was about to make that point myself, and I am glad that my hon. Friend has done so, given that not everyone will be able to contribute to this short debate.

The financial consequences for the European Union sugar beet regime have yet to be discussed. At present, the regime's net cost to the EU budget—the total cost of exporting surplus sugar, minus levies on production—is 800 million euros. That figure represents the cost of re-exporting ACP imports, so it is, in effect, a charge to the EU's development budget rather than the CAP regime, and should be regarded as such. In terms of sugar beet production in the EU, there is therefore no net cost. However, if the Lamy proposals are accepted and the amount of sugar beet produced in the UK and other EU countries is massively reduced, there will be an additional cost to the CAP budget in the form of arable payments and other measures taken by farmers to find an alternative crop. Support would have to be provided in the way that is currently provided.

If the Lamy proposals are accepted, there will be a net cost to the EU budget. In addition, it is highly likely that compensation will have to be paid to ACP preferential quota holders. Indeed, in an earlier draft of the Commission's proposals it was suggested that, for each 10 per cent. sugar support price cut, ACP suppliers will face an income loss of 100 million euros, for which they will be expected to demand compensation. The financial consequence of the proposals is therefore considerable—a point that has yet to be brought out.

I believe that Ministers in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food understand these arguments perfectly well. The problem is that the arguments have not got through to the Department of Trade and Industry, which is taking the lead on the Lamy proposals, nor have they got through to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is taking the lead in the General Affairs Council. They have also failed to get through to the Treasury, which ought to face up to the proposals' financial consequences. I hope that the Minister will use this debate to put those points to her colleagues in those other Departments. She should emphasise that it would be outrageous to accept the proposals without full consideration of their impact on ACP countries, and on the sugar beet industry in the UK and other EU countries. The European Parliament has not discussed them, and I cannot understand why proposals that will have such devastating consequences have been allowed to progress in this fast-track method without such discussion.

The British Government should take the view—which, I believe, MAFF wants to take—that the proposals have not been thought through and their consequences are not understood. At least as far as sugar is concerned, they should be put on ice until they have been properly considered. I am not commenting on other proposals, although it is clear that rum, rice and bananas are also affected. Sugar should certainly be taken out of the Lamy proposals, so that there can be full discussion and understanding of the consequences.

In the light of current events and the enormous consequences for jobs, agriculture and the ACP countries, it is clear that the review of the sugar beet regime should not be rushed at this stage but should be viewed in the context of the overall review of arable areas within the CAP in two years' time. That is the plea that I make to the Minister, and I hope that she will use this debate to bring home those points to her colleagues elsewhere in the Government.

10.44 am
Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) on bringing this matter before us today. The compactness of her speech was also admirable, given that so many want to speak.

It is clear that there is general, all-party agreement on the matter. There are representatives here from each of the three major parties, as well as from each region of the country, and both town and country are represented. I am impressed, if not somewhat daunted, by the serried ranks of former Agriculture Ministers in the Chamber. To paraphrase Ray Gunter, it is a bed of thorns on which they invariably sit. The problem is so acute because it is yet another horror coming out of the box of horrors that agriculture has faced over the past two years. It was only two weeks ago that some of the same right hon. and hon. Members were here to discuss the swine fever in East Anglia. That was an additional factor in the burden that agriculture carries.

It would helpful to contemplate why we have a sugar regime, its origin and the origin of the practice of growing sugar beet. I can claim some small connection with that because Maldon, which was once part of my constituency, was the site of one of the earliest experiments in growing sugar beet in the country, although Norfolk invariably claims most of the credit. We adopted sugar beet because it protected us against the hazards of the wider world. That became particularly apparent during the first world war, when our supplies of sugar cane were cut off and we began to appreciate how important it was to have stable home supplies. That sort of disaster is not within our ready contemplation again, but climatic disaster or political upheaval could cause difficulties that would make us grateful for a secure home supply.

Both Government and Opposition Members make the point that there is too much of a hurry to alter matters that have provided some security. We live in a world that believes in the benefits of change for its own sake. My party's principle is that change for some purpose is of benefit, but change for its own sake is not. No doubt economists—if economists were bookmakers, they would be out of business—may predict this, that or the other, but this is such a vast and complex subject, involving virtually the four corners of the world, that to rush headlong into the unknown, as we now seem to be doing, is unwise.

It has been well said that domestic growers and those in other parts of the world would not benefit from the changes, and the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) rightly pointed out that the regime currently costs the public Exchequer nothing. If we move to the scheme that is now being contemplated, there would be a cost because of the change to other crops being grown. The most remarkable thing of all, however, is that while the growers in this country have, in real terms, received less over time, the consumer has paid more—for products made with sugar bought at a lower price.

Agriculture needs a period of peace and regrouping. It does not need the helter-skelter of a crisis every week that may be the final crisis to bring down growers and farmers. The matter should be—to use a current American phrase—taken under advisement. We should have a period—I would imagine one of five years—for the matter to be fully studied. We should examine the consequences not only for this country but for the fragile economies that, up until now, we have sought to help. They would be put into the same jeopardy as our own growers.

10.49 am
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) is to be congratulated on triggering this debate. I am sorry to add a critical note, but it is a pity that the Government have not provided time for a full-dress debate in the House. I raised the matter with the Leader of the House last Thursday, and it was clear that she was not sympathetic to the request. I regard that as a serious matter, especially as these proposals were first tabled on 20 September, so there has been ample time for a debate on the Floor of the House. None the less, I congratulate my right hon. Friend.

It was also a pleasure to listen to another of my predecessors at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor). There have been several contributions from Norfolk, so I hope that the interests of Lincolnshire will be expressed, and I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) is in the Chamber.

Production and consumption are broadly balanced in the United Kingdom, so we do not contribute to a surplus, which means that the proposals are especially damaging and unacceptable to us. It is plain and can be historically established that when there is a reduction in the price paid to the producer, there is no automatic reduction in the price paid by the consumer. Since 1996, there has manifestly been no such link, so we must be critical of the assumption or argument that the proposals will benefit the consumer. I certainly doubt it.

I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) that British agriculture is simply not in a position to take any more economic knocks. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk said, and to judge from my experience too, British agriculture has not suffered such a difficult period since the war, perhaps not since the first world war. It is a serious time for British agriculture, and 23,000 jobs or so depend on the sugar industry.

We must keep it firmly in mind that it is absolute nonsense for the proposals to be considered by the General Affairs Council independently of a review of the sugar regime by the Agriculture Council. There should be close links. I am surprised that the Agriculture Council in Brussels has not taken a grip of the matter. It would be perfectly proper to put the matter on its agenda, in informal if not formal session. I know full well, as does the Minister, that there is an informal discussion at every lunch—and most dinners, too. I would like to think that there would be discussions of the sugar regime along with the red wine and patisserie. Perhaps she could reassure us on that.

As we move from those general assumptions, we can make some statements with absolute certainty. The proposals will be extremely damaging to the British sugar industry. They will certainly lead to an effective reduction in quota. My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk gave the figures, with which I agree. A reduction in quota, especially when associated with a reduction in price, will reduce farmers' income substantially. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk and I have said, what makes the proposals so offensive is that sugar is one of the few parts of British agriculture that makes money. To deprive British agriculture of such an important source of income is nothing short of lunacy.

Although there may be benefits to the EBA countries, where do our paramount duties lie? I make no bones about the fact that my paramount duty is and always has been to Britain, and in this case it is to the British sugar producer. The Minister and her colleagues should consider that question. I have great sympathy with the African, Caribbean and Pacific producers, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who is sitting behind me. That is an unusual place to find her, but it is nice to see her there. The interests of the ACP countries are important, but more important are the producers of Lincolnshire and Norfolk, so I hope that their considerations will be taken into account.

Mr. Gill

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recognise that growers in the west midlands have an added interest in the growing of sugar beet? The byproducts are used as feeding stuff, which enables us to maintain livestock production in a way that we probably could not do if that nutritional but relatively cheap stuff was not available.

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is right, and the point is well made.

Mr. Prior

Sugar beet is not only a profitable crop, it is the only bankable crop. For many farmers, the sugar beet quota represents a real financial asset, which is important to them in their discussions with their bankers.

Mr. Hogg

I am sure that it is one of the few securities that they can currently offer.

Mrs. Shephard

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the value of farm land is affected by whether a farm has a sugar quota? That is yet another knock-on effect.

Mr. Hogg

Yes, and my right hon. Friend will know also that a reduction in the quota will diminish the value of agricultural land; and, taking up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior), that will diminish the security that farmers can give to guarantee any overdraft that they may require.

The Government should seek to exclude sugar from the EBA initiative—there is no justification for its inclusion—and we need to push for a proper inquiry into the sugar regime. Those two actions should proceed together. There should be no disjunction between the consideration of the General Affairs Council and the Foreign Affairs Council; they should consider them together. Any inquiry should also take account of the ACP position; I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk was right when he said that substantial compensation would need to be paid to ACP countries, and that is profoundly undesirable. I believe that the present sugar regime should be rolled forward for at least five years. That would give the industry the underpinning that it requires.

The European Union has dealt with the proposals in its usual chaotic and undemocratic manner. They were introduced only recently, on 20 September, and no proper consultation or inquiry was undertaken. They have not been debated by the European Parliament or the Agriculture Council, as they should have been. What on earth is the General Affairs Council doing having to lead in an agricultural matter? The Government have got their priorities wrong. They should get a grip on the matter, assemble a blocking minority and save the British sugar industry.

10.57 am
Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) on securing this important debate. Tate and Lyle operates the world's largest cane refinery at Silvertown in my constituency in the east end of London. It employs 700 people directly and about 800 others on site are performing other services or working on capital projects.

I shall not repeat the concerns expressed about the contradictory nature of the two EU proposals and their impact on the sugar regime: that point has been well made. However, Tate and Lyle is sensitive to the principle of helping the world's 48 poorest countries. Nevertheless, although it understands that some may want to kick-start the WTO negotiations, the company is critical of the way in which the proposal has been handled. It is difficult to understand how two contradictory proposals could be announced within one week that are incompatible with the maintenance of the sugar regime.

The present and previous sugar regimes have been supported by import controls. Tate and Lyle is able to import raw sugar under special arrangements established under the sugar protocol, which provides quotas for duty-free access and some reduced-duty access to the EU market for sugar from specific African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. The new proposal was made without consultation with the EU's existing preferential suppliers. The European Commission has subsequently mentioned some figures but has declined to expose them to public scrutiny, the critical factor being that no impact analysis has been made.

Another complication is that the EBA proposal is under discussion in the General Affairs Council while the sugar regime proposal is under discussion in the Council of Agriculture Ministers. There is apparently no link between the two Councils for the purpose of the discussion. The sugar regime has been submitted to the European Parliament for an opinion. The EBA proposal has not been referred to the European Parliament. As it is being introduced through an amendment to an existing regulation, it is not necessary to submit it to the Parliament for an opinion. Therefore, the Parliament will not have an opportunity to examine the two proposals together.

Dr. George Turner

The British Government did not put the matter before this Parliament—we, the Members, did. I am confident that there must be a means by which Members of the European Parliament could debate the matter rather than issuing press releases on it.

Mr. Fitzpatrick

I would not disagree at all with that.

I am disturbed that one implication of what is going on could be a threat to the margin aid of approximately £21 million that Tate and Lyle receives under the current sugar regime and which it and other EU cane refiners have received since an in-depth analysis was conducted in the late 1980s by the Commission and EU member states. Those funds are essential to sustain Tate and Lyle's ongoing business.

At this stage it is difficult to estimate with any precision the sort of damage that the EBA policy could inflict on the United Kingdom refining operation in Silvertown. The confusion between the two sugar proposals cannot be overemphasised. British Sugar has been able to produce some figures for the potential level of beet quota cuts. The basic differences between Tate and Lyle's and British Sugar's businesses mean that Tate and Lyle has not been able to produce the same sort of projections as British Sugar. However, Tate and Lyle is certain that it will be damaged by the proposal, which is not being handled in the right way to plan for the evolution of the EU's external or internal sugar arrangements. At even modest levels of increased imports—combined with the price that the EU requires Tate and Lyle to pay for its existing raw supplies and the marketing disadvantage already suffered by Tate and Lyle, which makes it the weakest seller in the market—the business will be damaged. The impact of that will be in my constituency.

I know that Tate and Lyle, and others who will be adversely affected throughout Europe and the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, are trying hard to secure arrangements that will enable the two contradictory proposals to be considered coherently, and a coherent sugar policy established. Tate and Lyle proposes that sugar should be excluded from the everything but arms project, as it has been to date, and that an in-depth assessment should be made on the impact of duty-free and quota-free access.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department for International Development and, it is to be hoped, the Treasury should agree that sugar be excluded from the EBA initiative, thus allowing the proposal to proceed to the WTO. Those Departments should support the preparation of a detailed impact analysis of the effect of introducing duty-free and quota-free access for sugar. The analysis should be wide ranging and should include: effects on existing supplies; the benefits that might accrue to the industries in the potential new supplying countries, the least-developed countries; the potential for fraud; the adequacy of the safeguard mechanism for the EU market and the likely impact on the EU market and budget.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should ensure that no change is made to the sugar regime until the several studies proposed by the Commission on several aspects of sugar reform are completed. Those studies should be undertaken alongside a study of the implications of quota-free and duty-free access. The Minister engaged in the sugar regime negotiations should be asked to adopt a stance that will not endanger the UK's ability to secure the necessary arrangements to maintain a balance between beet and cane under the regime. The Minister of State has already given an assurance that maintenance of the balance between beet and cane is Government policy. Tate and Lyle is fearful about the Government's ability to achieve that balance.

As has been mentioned, the debate this morning is neither urban nor rural and does not favour cane or beet. It is a cross-party issue and a serious problem exists. The outcome of the discussions will affect 1,500 jobs in my constituency. We are hopeful about the Minister's response and look forward to urgent Government action.

11.4 am

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

I have benefited from the collective wisdom of many right hon. and hon. Members on this subject and, of course, we have all seen some excellent briefings. It is clear that several worries exist that require our urgent attention and time is of the essence. It was nonsensical that two European Union proposals whose impact would be contradictory were introduced within a week of each other. The lack of proper time for a real study of the proposals and for consultation before their implementation is unacceptable. Their potential impact on the agricultural community in East Anglia and in the United Kingdom generally—at a time when it is trying to recover from disastrous problems—will cause even more of a problem. Furthermore, their impact on less-developed countries that currently produce sugar for export could be catastrophic.

Given such circumstances, it is difficult to understand why such proposals were introduced. However, I suppose that reform has to be considered regularly and perhaps that is necessary. Clearly, before any changes are made, we should ensure that such a process is carried out with the benefit of a proper in-depth and carefully considered study into the widest policy implications. The current situation has a good chance of filling a lengthy chapter in that growing volume entitled, "The Doctrine of Unintended Consequences." Surely the sensible way forward is to give breathing space to enable proper study and consultation, as well as scrutiny from the House and the European Parliament before implementation is considered.

If reform is to take place, it should provide net benefits, and not hasty and precipitate action that could decimate existing successful businesses and throw hundreds of people out of work without providing any real tangible benefits—except, perhaps, to a small part of the sugar chain. I hope that the Minister will recognise the strength of feeling that is felt not only in the Chamber but throughout the country. We seek proper time for study and consultation; the Minister must stress that most strongly to our European partners.

11.6 am

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) on securing the debate. I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) that such an important issue should have been discussed fully on the Floor of the House.

The EBA proposals are completely incompatible with the continuation of the EU sugar regime. That regime should continue unchanged for at least two years until the entire arable sector is reviewed as part of a long-term review of the common agricultural policy.

Miss McIntosh

Will my hon. Friend press the Minister for a change in the legal basis, using her specialised knowledge of European affairs? I gather that the use of article 133 is the reason why the European Parliament could not effectively be involved in the procedure.

Mr. Moss

My hon. Friend makes a valid point and, hopefully, the Minister will deal with that issue when she responds to the debate.

In the immediate term, the Opposition oppose the Commission's proposed cuts in quota because, as has been said this morning, they discriminate against British producers.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if there are to be any cuts in the European Union sugar regime, no asymmetric cuts should be made whereby Britain bears a disproportionate burden?

Mr. Moss

I was about to make that very point. Only when surpluses have been exhausted should the quota of countries such as the United Kingdom, which does not produce a surplus, be cut.

The Conservative party supports an increase in free trade with less-developed countries. In principle, the everything but arms proposals are a move in that direction. However, it is vital that, before EBA is introduced, a full impact assessment is made of the effect of its introduction on producers in the European Union and ACP producers. In particular, the EBA proposals should not be introduced while the sugar regime remains unreformed.

Thirdly, it is outrageous that the EBA proposals are being slipped in through the back door. That point has been made many times this morning. It is vital that Parliaments in member states and the European Parliament have an opportunity to examine the proposals in full. Will the Minister assure us that the proposals may be put on hold, or that she will press for sugar to be excluded from them? A detailed, comprehensive and all-embracing consultation should commence with all the interested parties, and in particular with the ACP countries, which believe that they face ruin if the proposals go ahead.

11.10 am
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin)

This morning, I listened to "Yesterday in Parliament", in which this Chamber was described as a venue for raising issues of local concern. The speech made by the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) reminded us powerfully of her concern for her constituency and constituents. However, it is clear from the wide-ranging nature of the debate that the issue is one of not only local but national and international concern. I welcome the way in which hon. Members have approached this serious and important issue.

Members have made use of a wealth of detail, but I will first make some important general points. I emphasise very strongly that the Government understand the depth of concern among United Kingdom sugar interests about the proposals. Those interests include the beet and cane industry referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick). I should mention, too, our long-standing commitments to ACP countries and friends mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott).

We recognise that the proposals are being made at a time when agriculture has gone through a series of acute difficulties. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) referred to the prospect of further change and upheaval. Currency movements have decreased returns from sugar and other crops, as the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) said. In addition, as the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) said, the industry has been affected by recent bad weather.

Miss McIntosh

Why has the European Parliament not been involved in the matter, given that it has a joint assembly with the ACP countries?

Ms Quin

I am coming to that point.

Many people think that the Government should resist the proposals because of the pressures to the industry. However, we should consider the proposals in a broad context; they may contain threats, but opportunities exist also.

Hon. Members referred to contacts between the Government and the various sugar interests involved. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) referred to the visit that I made to his constituency in the past week, when I met several sugar beet producers and people working in related jobs, including those employed by an innovative cleaner-loader firm. I assure hon. Members that I am in regular discussion with representatives from across the industry.

The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk mentioned that I hoped to visit Wissington, in her constituency. I set out for Wissington two weeks ago; after four hours, I managed to get as far as Darlington before I abandoned the effort. That is bad progress for someone who is coming from Tyneside. I am meeting representatives of British Sugar this afternoon, and I was hoping to visit Wissington today. However, the timing of this none the less welcome debate meant that it was impossible to get there and back in the time available, so the visit was postponed. I have also recently visited Tate and Lyle, and discussed the issue with the company. I have observed its facilities and operation at Silvertown. A number of contacts have therefore taken place, and, like other Ministers, I have received a great deal of correspondence on the issue, to which we are responding.

Several hon. Members mentioned the procedures involved in the way in which the everything but arms proposal was introduced, and the parallel procedures relating to the Commission's proposals on the reform of the sugar regime. First, a number of references were made to the role of the General Affairs Council and the responsibility of Ministers other than agriculture Ministers in the process. Having served on the General Affairs Council, I assure hon. Members that Ministers who attend it liaise with their colleagues across Government. The council does not act in isolation from other councils, and British Ministers on the council do not act in isolation from Government consideration of the issues. I have batted for Britain on the issue of bananas, in relation to which, as the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk pointed out, we have an important ACP consideration to take into account. I therefore would not want to give the impression that there is not co-ordination across Government on the issue.

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said that the Agriculture Council had not discussed the issue. That is not the case. The Agriculture Council had its initial discussion of the Commission's proposals for reform of the sugar regime at its October meeting. I and other Ministers referred to the inconsistency between the Commission's proposals on reform of the sugar regime and the everything but arms proposal. Several Ministers referred to that point, about which there was considerable discussion. In the General Affairs Council and the Agriculture Council, it was pointed out that impact studies were needed on a number of specific areas. The General Affairs Council will certainly want the impact study to be properly discussed and considered, and British Ministers will make that point. In relation to proposals for the reform of the sugar regime, the Commission proposes to make a number of studies of competition in the European Union sugar industry, and of the transmission of cuts in sugar prices to consumers, which the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham mentioned. We shall press the Commission hard on those issues. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I do not have to wait for the red wine and patisseries to raise such issues.

Mr. Keith Simpson

The people who work in the sugar beet factory in my constituency, at Cantley, are worried about this issue, as are farmers. Is the Minister suggesting that there will be a period of consideration, or will the proposals be implemented?

Ms Quin

I am saying that the Commission must address the inconsistency between what is happening on the everything but arms proposal and the related proposals on reform of the sugar regime, which are modest by comparison. The Commission must provide information and impact studies on a number of areas. We are looking at those closely to ensure that our concerns are addressed. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham mentioned other countries in the European Union and their attitude to the issue. Those countries with important and large-scale sugar industries are also raising their concerns, and the Commission must address them.

Mr. Hogg

I am sure that hon. Members are grateful to the Minister for the way in which she has detailed her response. Ultimately, however, we still do not know what the Government will do at the General Affairs Council. Do the Government intend to exclude sugar from the EBA regime or not?

Ms Quin

We do not intend to exclude sugar from the EBA regime. To give effect to the EBA proposal, however, the consequences for the European sugar industry and for our legal obligations to the ACP countries need to be taken into account. In relation to the Commission's transition proposals for the next three years, we must consider in detail the impact on those two issues.

Several hon. Members


Ms Quin

Hon. Members are seeking to intervene, but I have only a few minutes in which to respond. I shall give way to my hon. Friend the. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington. I apologise to the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk, who introduced the debate, but she has at least had the opportunity to speak at length.

Ms Abbott

The Minister will be aware of the great concern in the Caribbean about EBA in relation to sugar, bananas and rum. Everybody knows that change is inevitable; the issue is the time scale. We have been briefed to the effect that it is intended that EBA be brought into operation by December. That is regarded with horror in the Caribbean. Will she provide assurances about the time scale?

Ms Quin

The Commission proposal envisaged a three-year phase-in to allow more access to the sugar regime for less-developed countries. In view of the interest in this point, it might help if I were to place a letter in the Library to provide hon. Members with information. I imagine that the Commission's documents are already in the public domain. Given the nature of hon. Members' questions, however, some of their concerns seem not to have been addressed.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Quin

Before I give way to the right hon. Gentleman, I shall refer to the point about the European Parliament, which several hon. Members mentioned. External trade matters under article 133, to which the hon. Member for Vale of York referred, do not involve consultation of the European Parliament. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) was, like me, a Member of the European Parliament for several years.

When the European Parliament is not formally consulted on a proposal, there are other ways in which the matter can be raised, whether through own-initiative procedures or through the fact that European Commissioners attend the European Parliament and answer questions during Question Time. In addition, MEPs are consulted on the sugar reform proposals. As the everything but arms proposal has a direct read-across to the Commission sugar reform proposals, matters can be raised in that context.

Mr. Curry

I appreciate the difficulty of being a Minister in one Department, in an area in which several Departments have a legitimate interest. I do not want to misunderstand what the Minister is saying. The impression that I have formed is that the Government are in favour of the proposals in principle, but that that might change, depending on what an impact study reveals. Is that a correct interpretation of the Government's position? Will the Foreign Secretary say to the General Affairs Council that the Government are in favour of the proposals subject, perhaps, to certain niggles and transitional periods, or do the Government take the position that it is a bad proposal both for the ACP countries and for our own industry? If he says that, will he find allies? I do not want to commit the Minister to giving an impression that she may not intend.

Ms Quin

The principle of access for least developed countries has guided the Government in our approach to trade issues. We recognise, however, that in the case of products such as sugar, we must be clear about the effects on a range of interests, including other developing countries that could lose out heavily under the proposals. That is why we are pressing for the impact studies along the lines that I suggest.

Mr. Curry

If the studies reveal a severely adverse impact, is it a fair interpretation of the Government's position to say that they do not rule out demanding that sugar be exempted?

Ms Quin

The right hon. Gentleman is asking me to respond to a hypothetical question, which is a dangerous thing for a Government to do, especially when a number of Departments are involved, as he rightly pointed out. We must ensure that change is evolutionary, not revolutionary. We are not against change or the principle of access for less developed countries, but we are against creating turbulence that would cause huge upheaval in the European Union or that would have an enormous effect on ACP countries.

It is not the principle that we are contesting. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk mentioned, the principle is something about which there is world agreement. Rather, the practical effects must be fully taken into account.

Several hon. Members


Ms Quin

I will not give way again because I have already done so on several occasions.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who is now present, was referred to by a number of colleagues in the course of the debate. I accept the point that he made yesterday—that we are dealing with international proposals that could have a very real impact on farmers in his area of Nottinghamshire as well as in Norfolk and, indeed, the west midlands and other parts of the country. Reform of the sugar regime was strongly supported by the previous as well as the current Government; indeed, the right hon. Lady who introduced the debate is on record as having spoken up strongly in favour of it on a number of occasions.

However, I accept that in looking at reform, British Ministers have a responsibility to assess it and to ensure that it does not discriminate against UK interests. The point must be made strongly. As the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) mentioned, it is our responsibility to ensure a non-discriminatory effect as far as the UK is concerned. We must also ensure that there is a balance between beet interests and cane interests, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town referred.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Quin

No, I will not give way as I have only one minute left. I want to make it clear that the Government—and that includes all the Departments responsible—are mindful of the interests of beet and of cane sugar, and of the sugar-using industries, which should also be mentioned in this context. Some big food companies in the UK have written to us in support of reform. We must also be mindful of the interests of the consumer. Because of all those interests, there is a complicated balance to strike. We do not intend to do that by sacrificing one interest for the benefit of others. We must move forward in a way that meets the concerns that were expressed by right hon. and hon. Members from all parties.

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