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Common Agricultural Policy

Volume 930: debated on Thursday 21 April 1977

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12.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what plans he now has for proposing a comprehensive review of the common agricultural policy.

I have made plain on many occasions my views on the common agricultural policy and on the ways in which we should seek improvements.

Has not the passage of time and the progressive expansion of the Community somewhat altered the original basis of the CAP? An increasing European urban electorate and a declining agricultural vote must surely imply an increase in consumer pressures. Is the right hon. Gentleman convinced, in his capacity as President of the Council, that the representatives of European consumer associations enjoy a properly structured relationship to the institutions of the Community?

If I may say so, I think that that is a very valuable supplementary question. I believe that we are at a change—a sea change, perhaps—in the basis of the CAP. I was the first President of the Council ever to receive a deputation of European consumers. Until now the deputations have always come from COPA, and it is right that they should. Obviously, the producers have a very firm interest in the workings of an Agriculture Council. But this was the first time that the consumers came, and I venture to suggest that they have an equal voice in the workings of the Council too. As far as I am concerned—and, I hope, as far as any Minister who succeeds me is concerned—that must be the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that if after a certain period of time—say, six months—there has not been a fundamental change in the Common Market agricultural policy, the Government—and I would hope that he would put this to his Cabinet colleagues—should consider breaking with the Common Market and coming out? We cannot tolerate any longer this constant rise in prices burdening the British people, as it does at the present time.

As the first supplementary question showed, there is, I think, a change taking place in the relationship not just of British consumers and British people with the workings of the common agricultural policy but in Europe as a whole. I believe that it is our duty to build upon that and to build upon it quickly. I do not believe that we shall get fundamental revolutionary changes in a matter of six months. I believe that the process of change has started, and I intend, as far as I can, to continue that process so that we get the best possible improvement we can.

Further to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Arnold), is it not now evident that there are improvements in animal husbandry in continental Europe which mean that dairy surpluses, far from being occasional, will become endemic? Given that the current structure of the common agricultural policy persists, will it not result in the British consumer being obliged to accept a bed of nails? In those circumstances, would it not be better to secure an early fundamental restructuring of the common agricultural policy rather than for it to collapse under its own absurdities and in so doing embitter other European relationships as well?

I believe that the hon. Gentleman is right in putting first and foremost the question of the structural surpluses. They are the vital question in the agricultural policy. He is also right, by implication, in believing that the agricultural policy is the main fundamental economic spring of the European Economic Community. I think that we are on the way to dealing with it, but we shall deal with it only if we realise one factor as a Community and as a country. The only reason why we are creating a structural surplus in food is that we are producing it at a figure that is too high for people to consume it. If we then say "Let our policy be that producers and consumers both shall benefit", I think that we can see an end to structural surpluses.

Since my hon. Friend is making the point that a fundamental change is about to take place, will he consider, together with his Cabinet colleagues, since no renegotiations took place last time before the referendum of 1975, whether it would be a good idea, because of all these changes, to give the British people an opportunity to have another vote after these so-called changes take place, in order that they may cast a true vote this time without being brainwashed by the pro-Market organisations both inside and outside the House—a vote on the basis of the practical things that have arisen from our joining the Common Market, namely, escalating food prices one after another, day after day, whichever Government are in power?

I understand very much my hon. Friend's point of view. But I hope he will allow me for next few days to get on with the urgent question of trying to settle the price review. Then we can return to other, wider issues.

Does not the Minister agree that cheap food and a common agricultural policy are totally incompatible and that it would be in the interests of both the producer and the consumer for Britain to opt out of the CAP on some commodities and return to a system of deficiency payments?

The common agricultural policy has, as I have said, been so oriented so far that it has inevitably created structural surpluses of food which the consumer could in fact consume quite well if the price was right. Let us see if we can get that straight. There is a fundamental amount of rethinking needed on the whole basis; with that I agree absolutely. But my first task as Minister of Agriculture is to see that the price review is settled. Then, possibly, we can think about these rather important questions that have been raised.