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Volume 479: debated on Thursday 17 July 2008

Second fiddle!

On 28 April, DEFRA placed a report in the Library on its statutory instruments between January 2000 and December 2007. The report shows that DEFRA implemented 1,036 statutory instruments between those dates and revoked 840, dating back to 2000 and earlier.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response. However, with input costs rising and British businesses forced to compete on an uneven playing field with the rest of Europe, they can ill afford a regulatory burden that is increasing year on year. What is the cost to industry of those regulations, and will the Minister take steps further to reduce the bureaucracy and red tape that prohibits business from doing its job?

I would challenge the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. In fact, the direction of travel is downwards. The plan that DEFRA started to implement in 2007 will reduce the administrative burden by just under a third by 2010, so we are moving in the right direction.

I know that at least one of the ministerial team is aware of the case in my constituency of the greengrocer who was prohibited from selling kiwi fruit because they were 4 g too light. What plans are being made to review the EU grading laws and does he believe that, in an era of rising food prices and shortages, such decisions are best left to the consumer, instead of being the subject of regulation?

I have been informed about this particular case. My hon. Friend will accept that it is important that we have rules for quality produce, as that is what the buyers want and what the consumers want, as is supported across the House. The vast majority of traders play by the rules and do not want to be undermined by those who do not. However, we are of course aware of the case that my hon. Friend raises.

What effort is the Department making to reduce the burden of regulation, especially from the European Union, when it comes to the problem that hill farmers will face if electronic tagging of sheep is introduced? What effort is the Minister making to reduce that burden on farmers?

In relation to the DEFRA delivery agencies, which act as regulatory bodies to protect the environment and the consumer, we have a simplification plan, which is working. We are reducing regulation, but our goal is quality regulation, including for the hill farmers whom the hon. Gentleman mentions.

It seems to me that the Minister does not really know what he is talking about when he mentions reducing the burden of regulation. That is because his Department is perpetrating a complete con trick on the industry and the public, because it measures the burden of regulation only by what it calls “administrative burdens”. Why does he not allow for the full cost to industry of all these burdens? For example, DEFRA says that the admin cost of the catchment sensitive farming regulation is £391,000 a year; it is actually £210 million a year. DEFRA says that the cost of the nitrates directive is £1.5 million a year, but the true cost, including all the investment that industry has to make, is £250 million a year. Despite all the Government’s warm words about farming, the Department is stifling farmers’ ability to compete.

The hon. Gentleman is ungenerous in his remarks and his analysis. He refers to the costs of regulation but ignores the benefits. One person’s regulation is another’s protection—a point that is often missed. Many of the regulations to which he refers are supported by the industries because they help to ensure that the cowboys and bad guys do not get an unfair advantage. He has made an accusation about costs, but he has completely ignored the costs to the taxpayer of non-regulation of environmental protection. For example, what would he say to the water industry, which spends £288 million a year treating nitrates from run-off? I suppose that he would not include that as a cost.