Having just heard the writ being moved, I am sure it would be the right thing to do to express our condolences to Alan Keen’s wife, Ann, whom we all remember, on behalf of the whole House.
The Government have commenced negotiations on the CAP reform proposals, which the Commission published on 12 October and which, for the first time, require the co-decision of the European Parliament. I recently met Agriculture Commissioner Ciolos, together with the Agriculture Ministers for the devolved Administrations, to ensure that all parts of the United Kingdom are taken into account.
Our net contribution to the European Union in the last five years of the Labour Government was £19 billion, and in the next five years of this coalition Government it will be £41 billion—an increase of 116%, because Tony Blair gave away Mrs Thatcher’s EU rebate. At the time, he said that our net contribution would not increase because the European Union had promised massive reform of the CAP. Who was lying, Tony Blair or the European Union?
That is precisely why the UK Government have expressed their disappointment that the proposed CAP reforms lack ambition. Although the commissioner correctly identifies food security and climate change as the two key challenges that agriculture faces, I regret that the proposals do not really address the great challenge. Therefore, we will seek to improve them to get the best possible outcome for taxpayers, consumers and farmers alike.
The Secretary of State will recall that that great European, Socrates, said that a politician who does not know the price of a bushel of wheat should not be in the job. If we got rid of the CAP, we would have to have a BAP—a British agricultural policy. Knowing our farming community—a landowning community—and its control of top Tories, I suggest that the BAP would be far more expensive than the CAP.
I think we are speculating wildly about the future of Europe. My job is to concentrate on getting an improvement in the reforms. It is important to appreciate that the underlying objective of the CAP is to provide good-quality food at a reasonable price. My Department is committed in its business plan priorities to producing more food sustainably, precisely to achieve that objective.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that a primary objective must be a move from market-distorting production supports to supporting public goods, such as the environment and amenity. How much progress does she believe the CAP reforms are making in that direction? How do we ensure that that general direction of progress can be accelerated?
That is a helpful question, as it enables me to share with the House the fact that we are on a journey with these proposals. We welcome the fact that the Commission wants to “green” the CAP. Taxpayers have every right to expect other public goods for the subsidy they provide. We feel that the “greening” proposals also lack ambition, and we want proper recognition of the fact that UK farmers go a lot further than those in a lot of other member states in providing stewardship schemes that make a real difference and provide environmental benefits that address problems such as the demise of species.
There is much talk of returning powers from Brussels to this Parliament and the British Government. Would the CAP not be a good policy to bring back to Britain? Could we not subsidise British farmers, even at the current levels, and save billions of pounds from our budget every year?
The nature of the supplementary questions is ranging much wider than the remit of my Department. As I have said, my job at each one of these Council meetings is to get the best possible deal for consumers, taxpayers and farmers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. That is my duty.