HC Deb 24 July 1996 vol 282 cc636-7W
Sir Sydney Chapman

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what was the outcome of the Agriculture Council held in Brussels on 22 to 23 July; and if he will make a statement. [40044]

Mr. Douglas Hogg

I represented the United Kingdom at this Council. Unanimous agreement was reached on measures to reform the EU fruit and vegetable regime, and on agricultural prices and related measures for 1996–97. The Council also discussed recent developments on BSE.

Agreement on the reform of the fruit and vegetable regime after 18 months of negotiation represented a significant further step in the reform of the EU common agricultural policy. The outcome is consistent with the objectives of the United Kingdom in as much as the reformed regime will reduce significantly the role of withdrawal and destruction of produce as instruments of market support. United Kingdom fruit and vegetable producers will stand to benefit from the reform measures in so far as they provide funds to promote the better marketing and processing of horticultural produce, and protect the future of specialised producer groups which are characteristic of the United Kingdom market.

The 1996–97 agricultural price proposals were also agreed on a basis satisfactory to the United Kingdom. In the arable sector, the Council agreed to fix the 1997–98 rate of set-aside at 5 per cent., and to lift the possibility of penalty set-aside during that year. Set-aside arrangements are to be simplified through a merger of rotational and non-rotational set-aside at a uniform rate of 17.5 per cent. Separately, I obtained assurances from the Agriculture Commissioner that steps will be taken to permit the non-lucrative use of set-aside land by non-profit-making organisations such as charities. I welcome this as a sensible rationalisation of the set-aside rules which responds to public concerns.

The Council also agreed that monthly increments for cereals going into intervention should be cut, as well as sugar storage refunds. Aid rates in the flax sector are to be cut by 7.5 per cent. for 1996–97 and a detailed examination carried out of future support arrangements for this sector on a non-discriminatory basis. An extension of the deadline for carryover of C sugar was agreed for the United Kingdom, a change which had been actively sought by the British sugar industry in order to reflect the longer processing campaign in the UK.

In the livestock sector, the Council placed particular emphasis on the need for urgent measures to help support the EU beef market this autumn because of continued difficulties in the wake of the BSE crisis; there will also be wider-ranging measures later in the year to reduce excess beef production and help producers adapt to changed market circumstances. The Council also committed itself to a reform of the milk regime with a review of the full range of options taking place in 1997. Mindful of the particular problems facing United Kingdom diary producers faced with the accelerated cattle slaughter scheme as part of the BSE eradication programme, the Commission gave welcome assurances on the flexible operation of milk quota leasing up to the end of the milk quota year at 31 March 1997.

The Agriculture Commissioner confirmed that the costs of the prices package could be met within the agricultural guideline for 1996–97.

Linked to the agreement on prices, the Council agreed upon revised income aid rates for hops, a limited extension of transport subsidies for Greece, and an increase in Portugal's sugar quota. The Council also adopted by qualified majority—Spain abstaining— arrangements for implementing agreements under GATT article XXIII and XXIV.6 in the rice sector. I was able to support these proposals. In addition, I obtained assurances from the Commission that early proposals would be made in respect of charges for pesticide evaluation and of uniform principles for authorising plant protection products.

The Council also discussed the latest information regarding BSE. I have reported separately to the House on measures which I am taking in relation to sheep in the light of advice received from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee. I reported my intention in this regard to the Agriculture Council. The French Minister similarly informed the Council of certain health protection measures taken in France as a result of advice received from their equivalent scientific committee. The Council unanimously endorsed the Commission's view that the right way forward was to put all available scientific information before the appropriate specialist committee with a view to establishing common EU rules for the removal of certain tissues of ruminant animals from the human and animal food chain. I welcomed this approach.

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