HC Deb 17 June 1999 vol 333 cc215-6W
Mr. Hood

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what was the outcome of the Agriculture Council held in Brussels on 14–15 June; and if he will make a statement. [87373]

Mr. Nick Brown

I represented the United Kingdom at a meeting of the European Union Agriculture Council in Luxembourg on 14–15 June.

Concluding a negotiation launched under the UK Presidency last year, the Council reached a unanimous landmark agreement (Spain abstaining) on battery cages for laying hens, the farming system which is most heavily criticised on grounds of animal welfare. From 1 January 2003, any new battery cages must meet new and more welfare-friendly standards. Conventional battery cages will be banned altogether after the end of 2011.

One of my aims was to accommodate non-cage systems of the kind which many UK producers have voluntarily adopted out of concern for animal welfare, and I am pleased to have secured terms which will allow producers who have such systems to keep them, without significant change also until 31 December 2011.

I regard it as important that, as we raise standards of animal welfare in the European Union, our producers should not be undermined by producers in third countries operating on lower standards. This week's agreement includes a firm undertaking from the Commission to seek wider international agreement on animal welfare standards in the next round of World Trade Organisation negotiations which starts early next year.

The Council also reached unanimous agreement on standards for organic livestock, ending nearly three years' discussion. Consumers and producers will benefit from knowing that all livestock products sold as organic must in future conform to a minimum set of requirements applicable throughout the EU. It remains open to each member state to set stricter (but not less strict) standards for its own producers. I intend that there should be early discussion between Government and UK organic farming organisations about the implementation of the new rules.

In the light of the problem of dioxin contamination in Belgium, the Council agreed on the urgent need to improve the monitoring and control of foodstuffs, and in particular invited the Commission to carry out a thorough review of feedingstuffs legislation and labelling.

The Council also agreed the 1999 CAP price proposals by qualified majority, Italy voting against. This largely prolongs the status quo for the 1999–2000 marketing year, in advance of the Agenda 2000 price cuts beginning next year. As part of the deal, I secured an important Commission commitment to allow member states to apply more flexible set-aside rules where this brought environmental benefits, as well as their agreement to correct an anomaly which prevented fruit and vegetable producer groups including non-grower members on their Boards.

Ministers also registered the importance they attach to milk consumption by school children and undertook to reflect further on how to encourage such consumption in a cost-efficient way.