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Common Agricultural Policy

Volume 228: debated on Thursday 8 July 1993

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7.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what recent meetings she has had with her European counterparts to discuss financial aspects of the CAP.

Will the Minister confirm that the common agricultural policy costs each family in Britain approximately £18 per week extra in food bills and that part of the money is due to the absurd subsidies that continue to be paid into areas such as the tobacco mountain, which, even two years ago, cost £70 million? Does she agree that the Government's reluctance to address those absurd subsidies is a result of the sweetheart arrangements that they have with tobacco companies?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman—the cost of the CAP is far too high. I am sure that he will be delighted that the United Kingdom has consistently argued that its cost is too high and that it hampers the efficient allocation of resources in the economy. May I take it that his enthusiasm for lower costs shows a change of heart by Opposition Front-Bench Members over the whole range of policy?

I reject entirely the hon. Gentleman's accusation of sweethearting. Certainly tobacco excesses and tobacco mountains should be tackled in the same way as other surpluses have been tackled in the EC.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that good financial control depends on the famous level playing field, or level ploughing field in this case? Did she see the letter in Farming News recently which described a British farmer visiting a French farm after 20 years and finding that nothing had changed, that the farmers had never heard of the set-aside scheme or health and safety regulations, that they were still making butter in the kitchen and selling it at the farm gate and that the village slaughterhouse had not changed either? How can we be more certain under the new rules that financial control is to be applied equally across the European Community?

I totally agree that we should aim for a level ploughing field as well as a level playing field. One hears the accusations that nobody keeps the rules but us in every member state in the Community and in every policy area. However, there is no doubt that the agreements reached at Edinburgh will help the tightening-up and monitoring of the rules, and not a day too soon.

The Minister confirmed that the average cost to a family arising from the CAP is £18 a week. She has congratulated herself many times on the recent renegotiations of the CAP. Will she confirm that the renegotiations have increased the figure to more than £18 per week?

It is the case that the figure has increased and much of that is to do with exchange rate mechanism realignments. The package was negotiated within the agricultural guideline that expects and looks forward to agriculture taking up a decreasing amount of the EC budget.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the worrying aspects of the set-aside scheme is its adverse effect on the employment propspects of workers in agriculture? Do the financial arrangements of the CAP, to which we, as a nation, make such huge contributions, make any provision for paying compensation to agricultural workers who lose their jobs because of set-aside?

No. There are no such arrangements in the CAP. However, my hon. Friend will know that while in this country, as elsewhere, agricultural employment is declining, growth of population in rural areas is increasing and, with it, prosperity and jobs.

Has the Minister had the opportunity to discuss with her European partners the free-market pricing arrangements that exist in New Zealand, which have some support in the British farming community and some support in interested quarters of the House of Commons? Has she any preliminary views on those matters?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that the recent CAP reform package represented a move towards more market-orientated arrangements. I recently met representatives from New Zealand and I was most interested to hear from them about the way in which things were working. I lose no opportunity to press on my EC colleagues the need for farming and agriculture generally to look towards the markets because that is the only sure way in the future.