The proposals for reform of the common agricultural policy are being negotiated by member states in the Agriculture Council and, for the first time, by co-decision in the European Parliament. We take every opportunity to discuss the UK’s concerns in detail with other Agriculture Ministers at Agriculture Council meetings and in the course of bilateral meetings. I had the opportunity to do that with the EU Agriculture Commissioner, Dacian Ciolos, both with Ministers from the devolved Administrations and, separately, with the National Farmers Union, most recently at the annual general meeting.
I am grateful for that answer. A report published this week by the think-tank Open Europe concluded that the best way to green the pillar one payments in a flexible way would be to replace the single farm payment with a market in transferable environmental obligations, so that we can use pillar one funding to bring to life some of the ambitions in the Natural England White Paper. Is that a proposal that the Secretary of State might take to the negotiating table?
My hon. Friend wrote an interesting article about CAP reform where he expressed the idea—which he calls “common objectives”—of introducing greater flexibility through the creation of a market in tradable biodiversity obligations. He is ahead of his time with this thinking. He has heard Ministers talk about the future importance of supporting ecosystem management through agriculture, although we are dealing with reform proposals as they stand. At this stage of reform, I am sure he would share with me the view that it is important that the CAP should be greened and that taxpayers should see other public goods for the support they provide.
Will there be any benefits from CAP reform for developing countries? The dire consequences for developing countries that flow from the operation of this dreadful policy—including, of course, from dumping—have been known for a long time.
I can give the hon. Gentleman the absolute assurance that the Government are keen to see the reduction in tariff barriers that would allow developing countries to send more of their produce to this country. We believe in trade liberalisation; we believe it is good for both the developed and the developing world.
Despite opposition from the UK and other countries, the electronic identification scheme for sheep is now part of the CAP. In her discussions, will the Secretary of State ensure that penalties for non-compliance with this impractical scheme are kept to a minimum, before getting rid of it altogether?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He may not know—and it is important to record for the whole House—that we wrung an important concession out of the Commission with respect to older sheep. However, in our discussions with the Commission we are of course taking forward the question of penalties, which should be proportionate.
I note the Secretary of State’s reference to discussions with devolved Ministers. Can she say when she last met the devolved Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, and also whether reference was made to greening the CAP, the issue of conacre or the definition of an “active farmer”?
As I have explained to the House on a number of occasions, we invite devolved Ministers to attend every Council meeting, which means that we meet them once a month, as there is a meeting virtually each month. In addition, we have meetings at Westminster. As for conacre, the Minister of State raised the issue at last month’s meeting on behalf of the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland.