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Common Agricultural Policy

Volume 495: debated on Thursday 2 July 2009

The common agricultural policy was one of the issues discussed at the last EU Agriculture Council that I attended, which was in Luxembourg on 22 and 24 June, during the Czech presidency. I look forward to continuing discussions under the Swedish presidency in the second half of the year.

In December 2005, Tony Blair surrendered the British rebate, which Mrs. Thatcher negotiated, on the false promise that the CAP budget would be slashed. Last year, the UK paid £3 billion to the EU; next year, it will pay £6.5 billion. How many teachers, police officers and nurses will have to be cut to pay for that?

The health check that I mentioned earlier provided much of what the UK wanted. Negotiations on the future are already under way informally, as was evidenced by the discussions that took place in Luxembourg last week. We are intent on making sure that we can reform the common agricultural policy to the benefit of Britain and British farmers, and to the benefit of Europe, and we continue with that policy.

Will my hon. Friend please assure the House that when he sees his European colleagues, he will get them to recognise that security of food supply requires a premium? That is not merely a handout for farmers; it is to allow farmers to work towards supplying us with our food. We should never slash and burn it, or run away from supporting our farmers in this country, as the Conservative party would.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are intent on making sure that the reforms to the CAP are in the direction of travel that he wants us to take. We had discussions last week that will clearly lead to intense negotiations in the months and couple of years ahead on the next round of the CAP and the next round of the European budget. There may be a new Agriculture Commissioner later this year, and the Lisbon treaty may have an impact on how the negotiations proceed in the years ahead. There is a lot going on in the background and we are intent on protecting British interests.

Very recently, the Secretary of State persuaded the rest of the EU to allow him to keep set-aside. It is widely rumoured that he will announce at the royal show next week that he will accept the voluntary approach. If he does, we will support him, as that would be the right decision. Does he agree that the success of the voluntary approach should not be measured simply by what area of land is taken out of production? The objective is to improve biodiversity. Will he reject the simplistic arguments made by some organisations in favour of setting targets on the area of land, and will he instead set targets on indicator species of birds, animals and invertebrates? That is the only way to really tell whether we are improving biodiversity.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is considering the conclusions and will make an announcement shortly, as has been trailed. Clearly, the issues are complex, as the hon. Gentleman has outlined. He knows better than I that whatever decisions are made to improve biodiversity and the ability of species to prosper, it will take some years to be able to demonstrate that that has happened. I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is taking all those complex matters into consideration and will make a statement shortly.