House of Commons
Tuesday 18 June 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before questions
London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords]
Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Tuesday 25 June (Standing Order No. 20).
Hertfordshire County Council (Filming on Highways) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Motion made, That the Bill be read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Tuesday 25 June.
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What assessment he has made of the open letter presented by an inter-faith delegation to the Minister responsible for the middle east and north Africa, on 14 May 2013, calling for the release of the seven Baha’i leaders in prison in Iran. (159997)
I was proud to receive that letter from a large number of faith leaders in the United Kingdom. It is a powerful expression of support for the imprisoned Baha’i leaders in Iran. I hope that the concerns of those with faith will be heard anew in Tehran, and we continue to call for the release of the seven imprisoned Baha’i leaders.
I thank the Minister for his comments and for receiving the letter and meeting us. On this day 30 years ago, 10 Baha’i women were hanged for refusing to abandon their faith. The continued incarceration of seven leaders is clearly of great importance to the Baha’i community, not just in Iran but around the world. What hope does the Minister have that the change in President may have an impact on the approach towards their persecution?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady not only for asking the question but for being present at the handing over of the letter. It remains the case that the human rights record in Iran is appalling. A lot of hope is being pinned on the possibility of change in Iran. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said yesterday, it is rather too early to tell, but it has been reported that the new President talked at yesterday’s press conference about a more inclusive constitution. I am sure that we will wait to see what happens, rather than just judge on words. If there is any opportunity for the release of Baha’i leaders and for better treatment of the Baha’is and all other religious minorities in Iran, it would be warmly welcomed by the House.
There are 7 million Baha’is living all over the world, many thousands in the United Kingdom. Would it be possible to contact the faith and religious groups in this country, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, to see whether they could act as a bridge to the spiritual leader to discuss the release of these prisoners?
The excellent thing about the inter-faith letter that I received on 14 May is that it was signed by a collection of leaders from virtually all the faiths represented in the United Kingdom, and they made exactly that point—that spiritual leaders can speak to spiritual leaders. I have no doubt at all that those in the United Kingdom continue to urge religious tolerance throughout the world and they made that particular point in their letter.
We are following events in Turkey closely and the Foreign Secretary and I have spoken in the past few days to our Turkish counterparts. We very much hope that matters can be resolved peacefully. A stable, democratic and prosperous Turkey is important for regional stability. Turkey remains an important foreign policy partner and NATO ally, and we shall continue to support its continuing reform agenda and encourage Turkey to respect its obligations as defined in the European convention on human rights.
The Minister’s words were subdued. Is he not shocked to see this increasingly modern, secular and economically successful country arresting young people for using Twitter, blocking trade union demonstrations with riot police and now threatening to use the army on the streets against its own citizens? Will he and the Foreign Secretary now publicly urge the Turkish Government to respect people’s basic rights and freedoms of assembly and expression?
It is important that all human rights, as set out in the European convention to which Turkey, like us, is a party, are fully respected. Some of the images from Istanbul and Ankara are certainly disturbing. As friends of Turkey, we hope to see those problems resolved peacefully. We noted the statements last week by the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey that the police had overreacted in some instances and an investigation into those actions was needed. We support all efforts to address the protesters’ genuine concerns through dialogue and consultation.
Over the weekend, more than 100 civilians, including doctors and nurses treating the injured, were arrested and held in incommunicado detention. There have also been reports of beatings. In the light of that appalling situation, will the Minister not only state his hope, but call on the Turkish authorities to disclose the location of everyone who has been arrested and to release immediately medical professionals who are identified by the Turkish Medical Association? Will he also make a public statement condemning incommunicado detention, because we have not heard enough of the public outrage and it needs to be heard today?
We are obviously concerned about the reports of the arrest of lawyers and doctors who were treating injured protesters at the scene of the demonstrations. The freedoms of assembly, association and expression are important rights. It is fair to recognise that Turkey has carried through substantial judicial and political reforms in the past 20 years. It is a very different country from when the military ruled and the army were deployed on the streets at the first sign of a demonstration, but that does not detract from the fact that the basic freedoms and human rights that Turkey has signed up to need to be respected.
Although any response to protest must be proportionate, does the Minister agree that this is not the Arab uprising? The Turkish Government have been elected three times, and on the last occasion with more than 50% of the vote. If the protesters do not like the Government, the answer lies in the ballot box, not in violence.
My hon. Friend is right that the Government of Turkey have been elected three times with a decisive majority of votes from the people of Turkey. The electoral remedy is, indeed, available. It is also right to expect any democratic Government to abide by the national constitutional rules and international standards on human rights to which the country adheres.
Many people will be concerned about the generality of the Minister’s answers. Will he comment specifically on the recent reports that 38 young protesters in one city alone in Turkey have allegedly been arrested for comments made on Twitter? What representations has he made to the Turkish Government about upholding freedom of expression and the freedom to demonstrate? In particular, has he voiced concerns about the recent comments of the Turkish Interior Minister, who said that arrests would be initiated on the basis of protesters’ use of social media?
It is important that the Turkish Government, like any other democratic Government, abide by the rule of law and follow due process in respect of any action involving the police and the criminal-legal process. When talking to our Turkish counterparts, the Foreign Secretary and I certainly make clear the extent of the public concern in the United Kingdom. Those of us who have long been firm friends of Turkey and who want to see its European ambitions fulfilled see the process of judicial and political reform as an integral part of fulfilling those ambitions.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary stated in December last year, we are taking stock of our policy on the British Indian Ocean Territory. We are engaged in a programme of consultation, including with the Chagos islanders.
Will the Minister put a timetable on that consultation? He will recall that it was in the 1980s that the islanders were last able to live on the islands. Surely it is time to go beyond apologies, guarantee a right of return for the Chagos islanders to the islands, and allow limited fishing and ecological tourism on the islands, rather than having a no-take marine protection area, which is the Government’s current policy.
As I said in my previous response, we are undertaking a review. There is no fixed timetable for the conclusion of that exercise. It is important that the review is thorough and that it consults as wide a range of partners as possible, both inside and outside Whitehall. That cannot be rushed. However, I hope to provide the House with an update on the process before the summer recess.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Significant credit should be paid to him for the assiduous way in which he represents the Chagossian community living primarily in his constituency. I confirm that we will be consulting his constituents and Chagossians who live in Manchester, as well as those who live in Mauritius and the Seychelles.
21. As I understand it, the current arrangement with the US Administration expires at the end of 2014. Will the Minister assure the House that, notwithstanding the vital role of the base, the Government will make it clear to the US Administration that we will not simply roll over that deal? (160019)
If I may correct the hon. Gentleman, the existing agreement runs out in December 2016. The agreement set out in 1966 stipulated that it would automatically be rolled over unless one of the parties disputes it between 2014 and 2016. We welcome the US presence in Diego Garcia, which offers a shared strategic asset for both countries, but the hon. Gentleman has alighted on some of the main issues about resettlement—first is security, and the other serious issue is the potential impact on the United Kingdom taxpayer, which must be looked at thoroughly.
Middle East Peace Process
During my recent visit to Israel, I raised our serious concerns about settlement activity at the highest levels, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu. We are working to ensure that settlement produce is correctly labelled so that consumers can make an informed choice. However, I do not believe that imposing a ban on settlement goods will promote peace.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for that reply; I do not doubt his good intentions, but the time for rhetoric is passed. The latest expansion of illegal settlements is making a two-state solution impossible on the ground. Will he consider further steps and accelerate the labelling proposals he mentioned so that consumers can make a choice as to whether they support the Israeli system of apartheid?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that settlement activity is steadily making a two-state solution impossible. That is why time is running out for a two-state solution, which was the case I made to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders on my visit to Israel and the occupied territories. We are taking up with other European countries the commitment of the EU High Representative to prepare EU-wide guidelines on the labelling of settlement goods—that is the direction we are taking on that policy. Above all, the answer is to get Israelis and Palestinians back into negotiations so that we can settle all the issues, including the future of settlements and final status issues. That is what we are concentrating on now.
I warmly welcome what my right hon. Friend has said about trying to get both sides into negotiations, because that is the way of resolving issues such as settlements and the legitimate concerns of both sides. What progress has he made in persuading President Abbas and the Palestinians to drop their pre-conditions for talks, which are an obstacle to resolving the issues mentioned by the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris)?
We are encouraging both sides into negotiations. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), was also in Israel and the occupied territories a few days ago, and spoke to President Abbas, as I did. We encourage the Palestinians to enter negotiations without pre-conditions; we also encourage Israel to approach those negotiations in a way that will allow them to succeed. I pay tribute to Secretary Kerry for the energy he has put into the process in his four and a half months in office so far. He and I discussed the issue in detail in Washington last week.
The question before us is not so much about what would be within the law as about what best promotes peace. We are at a critical stage—we are often at a critical stage in the middle east peace process, but this is one of those truly critical stages where the coming days or weeks will determine whether Israelis and Palestinians come back into negotiations on a two-state solution. That is the only way to truly resolve the settlement issue and create a viable and contiguous Palestinian state, and that is our objective.
Yes, that is true. I absolutely agree, as other hon. Members have said, that settlements on occupied land are illegal. That is why the previous Government and my predecessor proposed and introduced the guidelines on settlement produce. This Government have continued support for them and, as I have said, we are discussing how to apply them across the EU. I believe we are taking the policy forward in the appropriate way.
Israel: Children in Detention
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has just said, I visited Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories last week, when I had the opportunity to raise the issue of the report with the relatively recently appointed Israeli Minister of Justice. We will continue to press on the matter of children in detention.
It is a year since the publication of the “Children in Military Custody” report and the lack of reform is lamentable. Will the Minister press the Israeli Government on specific deadlines on specific issues, such as the implementation of the use of audio-visual recordings in all interrogations? Specific deadlines on specific issues could help progress.
In addition to my efforts last week, I will this week see the Israeli Attorney-General, who is paying a visit to the UK. I absolutely intend to raise that issue with him. The Government support the report. Provisions in it will benefit not only children, but how Israel is seen. Currently, some 238 children are within the Israeli judicial system, including 137 in Israel. The issues are pressing, and I will continue to raise them very straightforwardly with the Attorney-General when he is here.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the tragedy is that, unlike juvenile criminal trends in most societies, many crimes carried out by minors in the disputed territories are of a violent and ideological nature? What is his latest assessment of the Palestinian Authority’s sanction and glorification of violence?
The tragedy is that two groups of people have been separated for far too long, and the efforts that need to be made to bring them together have foundered constantly. The problem of children taking to the streets and throwing stones and the Israeli defence forces having to respond will not be settled until we have the overall settlement on which we are working so hard to support Secretary Kerry, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary mentioned a moment ago.
Geneva Conference on Syria
No decision has been made on participation. Our priority remains to see a diplomatic process in Geneva that succeeds in reaching a negotiated end to the conflict, but we will have to be prepared to do more to save lives and pressure the Assad regime to negotiate seriously if diplomatic efforts are to succeed.
Politicians should leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of a diplomatic solution. Does the Foreign Secretary therefore understand widespread concern that we are not giving diplomacy the best chance if Iran, a key player in the region, is excluded? Will he do what he can to encourage its inclusion?
It is of course important that the conference in Geneva brings together sufficient groups and powers to agree a sustainable settlement of the conflict in Syria, but it is also important to have the ability to start from common ground. That is what was agreed at Geneva last year—that a transitional Government should be created, with full Executive powers, formed from regime and opposition by mutual consent. We have seen no evidence that Iran agrees with that agreement, which we made with Russia and others. In the absence of such agreement, it is hard to believe that Iran would play a constructive role at the Geneva negotiation.
I hope Iran is included, because it is a key player, but whether or not it is included, can the Foreign Secretary say to the House in absolutely crystal clear terms that, if the Government decide to send arms to Syria, there will be a vote—I choose my words precisely—on a substantive motion before that decision is executed? Within that, I define as arms British planes policing a no-fly zone and possibly bombing anti-aircraft installations of the Syrian Government, and training, which could be training on the ground. Will he confirm a quote in The Sunday Times on Sunday:
“One senior Tory source said…‘The bottom line is that we will avoid at all costs a vote as we don’t think we can win it’”?
This is a cross-party matter.
It is a cross-party matter. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have made the position clear, so I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman needs to look at “a senior Tory source”. There is no Tory more senior than the Prime Minister. [Interruption.] Occasionally, one or two might think they are, but there are no Tories more senior than the Prime Minister and he has made it clear that the Government have a strong record of holding votes in the House of Commons on these issues when it is necessary to do so. We certainly would not want to pursue any aspect of our policy on this issue against the will of the House of Commons. That is neither feasible nor desirable, so of course we have made clear that there would be a vote. I have also made it clear that we would expect it to be before any such decision was put into action.
I would like to think that I heard the word “yes” in that answer, but I am afraid I did not. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the unholy alliance between Iran and the Assad regime, how does it help the interests of this country to change yet another Arab dictatorship into another Islamist state, complete with weapons of mass destruction for al-Qaeda to use against us?
My hon. Friend must bear in mind that the change happening in Syria is not one that was activated here in the United Kingdom—it started in Syria. It came from the people of Syria themselves, as it has in many other countries, where many people want economic opportunity and political dignity for their own countries. The situation we face now is that the crisis is getting worse. We need a political solution and we will not get one if the more moderate and pragmatic parts of the Syrian opposition are exterminated over the coming months.
I hope the Foreign Secretary can help simple folk like me to understand things a little bit better. My right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) asked a specific and precisely worded question on a substantive vote under a certain set of circumstances. Was his answer to that yes?
I do not know many other ways of having votes in this place on a specific issue than having a motion that talks about that issue. I was expanding on the right hon. Gentleman’s question to try to cover all eventualities. Of course we have a vote on an issue of that kind in the House of Commons. [Interruption.]
Iran and Russia have consistently supported the Assad regime. Given the recent reports that 4,000 republican guards are to be deployed to Syria, is it not even more important that Iran’s presence at the conference is taken seriously? They are part of the problem and therefore part of the solution.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but it is possible to argue that in both directions. As I said a moment ago, it is important to have at Geneva sufficient groups and sufficient powers to be able to make a workable and sustainable settlement of the conflict in Syria, but there is a balance between that and including those powers or groups that would make a settlement to the conflict impossible. None of Iran’s actions to date on Syria has been in the interests of promoting a solution or political settlement.
The Foreign Secretary has just reiterated the Government’s support for a Geneva II conference. Will he set out for the House whether he believes that the UK’s supplying arms to elements of the Syrian opposition would increase the likelihood of those talks taking place—or, indeed, succeeding—and how, if he and the Prime Minister decided to pursue that course of action, he would be able to provide assurances to the House on the likely end use of UK-supplied weapons?
We have not taken any decision about that, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. As he also knows, I have said in the House before that if we did so, it would be in certain circumstances: in conjunction with other countries, in carefully controlled circumstances and always in accordance with international law and our own national law. But we have taken no such decision to do so. We are clear that to save lives and promote a political solution it is necessary to give more support to the national coalition of the sort we have announced before in the House. That remains our position, and we believe it helps a political solution.
The humanitarian situation in Syria is dire. More than 93,000 people have been killed and 6.8 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. That includes at least 4.25 million internally displaced people and 1.6 million refugees. We have committed £171 million to provide food, health care, water and shelter for refugees inside and outside Syria.
There are many aspects to the problems in Syria. I was explaining to the media yesterday that our biggest effort is on the humanitarian side. The United Kingdom is one of the biggest national donors to help with the humanitarian situation. We are working on a further substantial increase in our humanitarian assistance, because the UN has called for another $5.2 billion over the next six months. As we speak, the Prime Minister is seeking agreement among the countries of the G8 that the humanitarian situation should be one of our top priorities.
Does my right hon. Friend understand that the urgency of the humanitarian problem is underlined by the fact that in the camps, particularly in Jordan, rape, violence and forced marriage are commonplace, which has an impact on the economic and political stability of Jordan itself? Can he satisfy the House that his Government—our Government—[Interruption.] Old habits die hard. Can he satisfy the House that our Government are doing everything in their power not only to contribute in the way he described, but to persuade other nations, particularly rich nations in the Gulf, to do so as well?
Our Government, of whom my right hon. and learned Friend is a vigorous supporter at all times, are indeed doing that, not only through the financial assistance I have described, but by sending specific support and equipment to Jordan to help ensure people are safely taken to camps as quickly as possible. We have also sent to the Syrian border some of the experts I have assembled on preventing sexual violence in conflict, and we certainly vigorously encourage other nations to join in meeting the UN’s appeal for funds.
Last week, I visited the Domiz camp in Iraq, where 150,000 fleeing Syrians have been given refuge and are being well looked after by the Kurdistan regional government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees working together. Unfortunately, however, only 28% of Syrian aid is currently funded, and there is a shortfall this year of £3.8 billion as a result of people not meeting their obligations. Will the Foreign Secretary press the G8 at least for the members of the G8 to meet their obligations, so that lives and individuals on the ground can be helped?
The G8 is going on now, as the hon. Gentleman knows. As I mentioned a moment ago, one of the priorities of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is to agree at the G8 that the G8 together will supply a large share, a large slice of the new UN appeal for $5.2 billion. On my many visits to the middle east region, including the Gulf, of which there will be more shortly, I strongly encourage other nations to take part. The new appeal is several times bigger than the $1.5 billion appeal for the last six months, which shows that we are now dealing with the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century so far.
22. In Jordan there are large camps. Everybody can see them on our TV screens and see what is happening. In Lebanon there are proportionately a similar number of Syrian refugees, but they are not in camps and are dispersed among the towns and cities. Nevertheless, the problem is real. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that Lebanon is not overlooked in any aid funding? (160020)
Yes, absolutely. I have visited centres for Syrian refugees in Beirut, where, as my hon. Friend rightly says, people are not in camps, although they are given vouchers, for instance, so that they can buy food locally. I pay tribute to the hospitality of the Lebanese people. The United Kingdom is, for instance, funding the construction of border observation posts for the Lebanese armed forces to try to assist the stability of the border in Lebanon.
Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership
The Prime Minister, together with President Obama and European Commission President Barroso, last night formally announced the launch of negotiations at the G8. This was fitting, given the UK’s leading role in getting the TTIP under way. This is a once-in-a-generation prize: the biggest bilateral trade deal in history.
An independent study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research has found that an ambitious EU-US free trade agreement could bring economic gains of £100 billion a year to countries in the EU. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will do everything in his power to bring about a successful agreement?
This is a top priority for the Government. Interestingly, not only would such a deal bring the benefits that my hon. Friend mentions to the EU, as well as similar benefits to the United States; it is also estimated to benefit the rest of the world, outside Europe and the United States, to the tune of £85 billion.
9. What recent assessment he has made of progress on human rights in Colombia. (160006)
Much progress has been made under the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos, notably the launch of peace talks. Clearly long-term challenges remain. We will continue to work closely with the Colombian Government to help to overcome them.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating the non-governmental organisation Justice for Colombia on bringing together joint representatives from this House to meet the FARC representatives in the peace talks in Cuba? Can he tell us what human rights discussions took place between the Prime Minister and President Santos earlier this month in London?
President Santos not only met the Prime Minister and discussed the peace process; he also met my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and me, and we discussed those issues as well. I will shortly go to Colombia. I offered a meeting on 2 July, before I go, to the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friend, the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). I hope to extend that invitation to his group, the parliamentary friends of Colombia, so that we can go through these things before I go to Bogota early next month.
Is it not the case that under both President Uribe and now President Santos, human rights have greatly improved in Colombia? One of the great success stories is that kidnappings and murders are down, and we have seen a 90% reduction in FARC guerrilla activity, which means that Colombia can make progress.
Yes, and we are very supportive of that. I re-read our annual human rights report yesterday. Key progress is highlighted in that report—the peace talks, the creation of the national human rights system and the work of the national protection unit, which now protects more than 10,000 Colombians—so we think things are moving in the right direction.
18. Given the latest murder by the Colombian army—of a 17-year-old boy—thereby continuing the so-called false positives, and the fact that President Santos has now legislated to allow military courts to deal with its human rights abuses, so continuing army impunity, will the Secretary of State accept that he was wrong to say that the Colombian army no longer carries out extra-judicial murders? (160016)
The Government have assured us that there will be no more impunity for servicemen, and I discussed this with both the vice defence Minister, Jorge Bedoya, during his visit here in March and subsequently with the constitutional court judge, Vargas Silva, who was here on 30 April. I will continue to discuss these matters. We are against impunity for the military, and we make our position on that very clear.
Indeed, and narcotics impinges on the human rights of people in Colombia and, unfortunately, of people here in the UK, Mr Speaker. Yes, we will give our full support—we are giving our full support—to the Government of Colombia. President Santos is a keen Anglophile, and we are very supportive as a Government of what he is doing in leading his country from the dark days of the past to a much brighter future.
I met Secretary Kerry in Washington last week. Our talks covered Syria, the middle east peace process, the G8 summit, Afghanistan and climate change.
At the start of his first term, President Obama said that he would close Guantanamo Bay within a year. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us how close the prison now is to closure, what is being done in the interim to ensure the health and well-being of Guantanamo detainees, what steps the Prime Minister has taken to secure the return of Shaker Aamer and whether it will be discussed during the G8?
The President has made a number of statements about Guantanamo Bay, including in the last few weeks reiterating his determination to close it. We welcome that. I have discussed with Secretary Kerry the position of the last remaining UK resident, Shaker Aamer, and expressed our wish to see him return to the UK. We will see after the G8 whether it has provided an opportunity for the Prime Minister to raise the issue with President Obama.
Developments do offer some hope. We discussed the issue extensively yesterday on an urgent question. Positive statements were certainly made during the election campaign of Mr Rouhani, who has been elected as President of Iran. I am sure that the people of Iran will now look to him to deliver on those promises, and we will judge Iran by its actions over the coming months.
Within days of the UK and France pushing for the lifting of the Syrian arms embargo, the largest single contributing country to UN peacekeeping on the Golan heights announced the withdrawal of its forces. Will the Secretary of State confirm that in his discussions with Secretary Kerry, he stressed the importance of the United Nations for humanitarian and security aspects in and around Syria and affirmed that he would do nothing to undermine it?
The United Nations has an absolutely central role, and the hon. Gentleman can be assured that we believe in that and that we always make that case. Austria gave particular reasons, including recent trouble on the Golan heights, for its intended withdrawal, but we want to see that force continue there and be fully staffed and supported.
Aside from airing the possibility that western countries might arm the Syrian opposition, will the Foreign Secretary tell us what steps Secretary Kerry would like to take to bring Syria, and perhaps even Iran, to the negotiating table?
Secretary Kerry has been instrumental in trying to launch the “Geneva II”, as we might call it—a process of negotiation to come in Geneva between regime and opposition in Syria, supported by all of us. Work on that continues, and one thing the Prime Minister is discussing with other G8 leaders is our unity and determination together to bring about a transition in Syria through a conference in Geneva. I pay tribute again to Secretary Kerry’s efforts on this.
As we are witnessing the security handover to the Afghan authorities, may I remind the Foreign Secretary that we have been pressing him for some time to bring about greater involvement of the neighbouring powers—including Iran—in the maintaining of Afghanistan’s future stability and the securing of the gains that have been made, especially for women’s health and education? Has he made any progress on that during his discussions with Secretary Kerry?
A great deal of progress has been made on it recently, over a period of several years. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, neighbouring countries, including Iran, have regular meetings with Afghanistan. Relations between Afghanistan and Iran are reasonably good, and we do nothing to stand in the way of those good relations. It is important for Afghanistan’s neighbours to co-operate with it on security, on counter-narcotics, and, of course, on the economic development of the country.
National Parliaments (EU)
We believe that national Parliaments are the fundamental source of democratic legitimacy in the European Union, and we are working with EU partners and parliamentarians to find ways of strengthening Parliaments’ powers to hold to account those who make decisions in the EU.
A couple of weeks ago, at the Königswinter conference, the Foreign Secretary mentioned the concept of a red card that could stop future EU legislation that a group of member states found unattractive. Does he agree that the red card system, if implemented, should also apply to existing legislation, so that the European Union can be properly reformed?
Can the Minister confirm that the Parliaments of countries that are applying the rules of the European Union in order to gain access to the single market, such as Norway and Switzerland, have absolutely no influence on decisions in the EU?
The United Kingdom works on human rights issues through international organisations, as well as bilaterally though our embassies and high commissions. Tackling discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity is a UK priority. Our clear message is that human rights are universal, and should apply equally to all people.
Approximately three quarters of Commonwealth countries criminalise homosexuality. Will the Minister discuss the amendment of the Commonwealth charter to include LGBT equality, given the striking omission of discrimination on grounds of sexuality from the forms of discrimination to which the Commonwealth is rightly opposed?
If the hon. Lady has time, she should look at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s human rights and democracy report. It contains a section on LGBT rights, respect for which is an integral part of the Government’s wider international human rights programme. We lobby consistently to try to ensure—through our bilateral relations, and also through multilateral organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union, the Council of Europe and, indeed, the Commonwealth—that people respect human rights, irrespective of gender and sexual orientation.
The freedom to be oneself is a pretty fundamental human right. Will my hon. Friend ensure that organisations such as the Kaleidoscope Trust—which has a rather distinguished president, and whose parliamentary friends group I chair—Human Rights Watch and the Human Dignity Trust are able to work with his officials in territories where homosexuality is criminalised, and to support those who are standing up for the rights of LGBT people there?
My hon. Friend has made a powerful point. Of course I shall be happy to ensure that the relevant and important non-governmental organisations to which he has referred, along with others, engage with officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also right to draw attention to the significant challenges that exist in some countries, but I assure him and other Members that we lobby vociferously, not just in countries such as Uganda and Nigeria but in Russia and Iran, where there are particular problems that need to be dealt with to ensure that there is equality of rights.
I urge the Minister to prioritise talking to other Commonwealth countries about this issue in the run-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. May I ask him specifically about Russia, however, where in the context of a wider crackdown on freedom of expression and human rights, the Duma has just passed a law introducing draconian penalties for propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations? Have the Government taken advantage of President Putin’s presence in the UK this week to push him on this issue and to urge him not to go down that path?
As I said a moment ago, we consistently lobby—through bilateral relations and our embassy in Moscow, as well as through the multilateral organisations I referred to earlier, particularly the UN with its universal periodic review—to make sure that countries like Russia adhere to the international framework for human rights, especially as it relates to LGBT rights. I can give the hon. Lady an assurance that we will continue to lobby through both those two sets of organisations, bilaterally and multilaterally, to try to make sure that all people have equal access to human rights.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (160022)
The Prime Minister will make a statement tomorrow on our G8 presidency. Not only have we secured the launch of negotiations for an EU-US trade deal, but we are also working on landmark agreements on tax and transparency.
Will the Foreign Secretary update the House, from the latest information known to him, on the conduct of the Burmese army and its oppression of minority peoples in Burma? Has its conduct improved, and will he say something about the systematic use of sexual violence on those helpless minority peoples?
We work hard with Burma on human rights, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, and the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), has been there quite recently. We have also started to establish military-to-military links so that we can have a dialogue with the Burmese military about these and other issues. There is still a lot of work to do in Burma on human rights, and we continue vigorously to take up issues such as the plight of the Rohingya people and continuing ethnic violence in some areas, but we are working with Burma to improve the situation.
T4. Having a well-targeted network of embassies is fundamental to extending British influence and trade across the world. How many new embassies have opened, and how many embassies that were closed under the last Government have been reopened, since May 2010? (160025)
I am glad to be able to tell my hon. Friend that so far we have opened six new posts and upgraded a further six posts, and over a five-year period, we will be opening up to 20 new embassies and consulates. That is vital in order for Britain to be well-connected in the world, and it is a sharp contrast from the withdrawal of British diplomacy from many areas under the last Government.
The Foreign Secretary said in answer to an earlier question that he would judge President-elect Rouhani on his actions. What specific actions will he be seeking from the Iranian regime and the newly elected Iranian President himself, in order for them to demonstrate in the months ahead a renewed commitment to resolving the nuclear crisis by peaceful and diplomatic means?
There are two main aspects to that. One is to meet the International Atomic Energy Agency’s transparency requirements, some of which I mentioned in detail when answering the urgent question in the House yesterday. That includes addressing the issue of the heavy water reactor at Arak and meeting the requirements for information across a wide range of matters that the IAEA has set out. The other thing is to respond constructively to the offer from the E3 plus 3 that has been on the table since February, and which would allow us to make a very significant start to defusing the tensions over the nuclear issue and resolving it. The new Administration in Iran will be judged on those two things.
T5. The BBC World Service is a trusted source of impartial news for hundreds of millions of listeners across the globe, yet the FCO is cutting its budget by about £2 million. Given that history suggests that soft power is far more effective at promoting democratic values than force of arms, will the Foreign Secretary reconsider this ill-judged and rather short-sighted decision? (160026)
The cut I announced last week was three quarters of 1% of the World Service budget, having not passed on any of the reductions in departmental budgets for the past two years. That is much smaller than spending reductions across the rest of the public sector in the UK, and I believe that a well-run organisation can take a 0.75% change in its budget. Of course by transferring the funding of the World Service to the licence fee in future, we will remove this problem of the World Service being affected by departmental budgets at all.
T2. The recent Africa progress report reveals that the moving of resources by companies into lower-tax jurisdictions costs the continent £25 billion a year. Can the Foreign Secretary guarantee that any deal on tax avoidance reached at the G8 will benefit Africa? (160023)
The hon. Gentleman is right to signify the importance and potential benefit to Africa of the discussions taking place at the G8. He also should be aware of the very positive and speedy way in which the United Kingdom’s Crown dependencies and overseas territories engaged with this important agenda, particularly as it relates to the automatic exchange of tax information, signing up to the multilateral convention on tax matters and putting in place action plans for beneficial ownership, which could have a significant positive impact on African economic growth and development.
T6. The Foreign Secretary was only 14 at the time of the last referendum on EU membership and therefore could not vote. So does he welcome the private Member’s Bill being introduced on 5 July that will give the British people an opportunity to vote on this important matter or does he share my concern that not all sides of the House are engaging fully in this important process? (160027)
I was only 14, although I had a big influence on how my family voted even at that stage, in 1975. It is absolutely right that we put forward again the opportunity, in the next Parliament, for the people of this country to have their say in a referendum on the European Union. I note that the Opposition Whips have circulated guidance for Opposition Members saying that they are looking for suitable speakers so that the Chamber is not completely empty at the time, but I wonder whether that will make any difference, given the emptiness of their policy.
T3. The Foreign Office Ministers will, I hope, be aware of the widespread concerns and worrying allegations about the conduct of aspects of the general election that took place in Malaysia in May. Such concerns related to intimidation at polling places, phantom voters and incomplete electoral rolls. Given the importance of the relationship between the UK and Malaysia, are any of the Ministers able to inform the House as to whether they will be taking those issues up with the Malaysian Government? (160024)
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that relations between the two countries are extremely important. Obviously, we have also seen those reports. I am going to Malaysia next week and I can confirm that I shall be looking into this at first hand.
The Prime Minister made clear our position in the House a few weeks ago: we recognise Tibet as part of China and we do not support Tibetan independence. We have well-established positions and dialogue on human rights, as the House well knows, but of course we also understand Chinese sensitivities and concerns about Tibet.
T8. Reverend Peter Cho of Tabernacle church, Newbridge in my constituency, has raised concerns this morning about nine North Korean defectors, including five children, who last month were forcibly repatriated by Laos and China. Does the Secretary of State share the concerns of Reverend Cho, the UN and other human rights organisations that these people could face false imprisonment and, potentially, execution? (160029)
We are extremely concerned about people being returned to North Korea—we have made our position clear—because we think they will possibly be subject to torture and certainly be subject to intimidation. We think that these people should be treated as refugees.
T9. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on his meeting with the Ecuadorian Foreign Minister and, in particular, on whether any progress has been made in securing the removal of Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy? (160030)
The removal of Mr Assange from the embassy would be easy to secure if he walked out. He will be arrested, in line with our law, if and when he does that. I had cordial talks yesterday with the Foreign Minister of Ecuador and explained again our legal obligations: we want a diplomatic solution, but it has to be within our law and we are legally obliged to extradite Mr Assange to Sweden. We did not make any breakthrough or substantive progress, but we have agreed that our officials will meet again to see how we can find agreement.
I have, subject to the agreement of the Prime Minister and the Queen, appointed a higher proportion of women to those posts. I feel strongly about the subject and often discuss with the senior management of the FCO the need over the next few years to ensure that a higher proportion of senior positions, including senior ambassadorial positions, are held by women. I will continue the internal pressure over the coming months.
Will Ministers tell us how the balance of EU competences review is going and confirm that it has received strong representations urging the importance of Europol and the European arrest warrant in tackling cross-border crime, terrorism and human trafficking?
The balance of competences review is going well and I believe that we are on course to publish the first six reports arising from it before the summer recess. As my hon. Friend knows, the new calls for evidence include calls for evidence on various aspects of justice and home affairs and I am sure that his submissions, along with many others, will be warmly welcomed.
Erdem Gunduz, the standing man of Taksim square, stood for eight hours in peaceful protest yesterday. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that he and others like him will be able to demonstrate peacefully without interference from Turkish authorities?
It is now more than a year since Leading Seaman Timmy MacColl went missing in Dubai, leaving a young family behind in my Gosport constituency. I know that the Minister has taken a personal interest in the case, but will he assure me that he will continue to put pressure on the Dubai police to keep giving this matter the attention and resources it deserves?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. This case is extremely distressing for the family. I was in Dubai recently, where I met the chief of the Dubai police. We discussed the case and we are continuing, through our representatives there, to urge the authorities to do all they can to see what, if any, light they can shed on that sad disappearance.
The transatlantic trade and investment partnership between the EU and the US has been a part of the G8 discussions in the beautiful surroundings of Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State inform the House of what his hopes are for a successful outcome from those negotiations and for how they might progress?
Yes, indeed. I hope that what has been agreed in the splendid surroundings in Northern Ireland, which will have been much appreciated by the G8 leaders, will now be taken forward vigorously. It is vital to maintain momentum on the issue, to place as few obstacles in the path of the negotiations as possible and to build political support on both sides of the Atlantic. I did so when I visited the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Capitol hill last week.
Many people who have seen the appalling scenes in Turkey on their television screens will have been dismayed by the rather meek response from the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington) earlier. Will he give us a little bit more of a sense of the outrage that people are feeling around the world and confirm that he is putting real pressure on the Turkish Government to respect the right to peaceful protest?
In our dealings with the Turkish Government, we have to respect the fact that they are a democratically elected Government—they are not the kind of military regime that used to rule Turkey. At the same time, however, we have to say to our Turkish friends that they have entered into commitments to democratic reform, judicial reform and human rights, and that all their friends elsewhere in the world look forward to their continuing to deliver on that agenda.
Last week four men were convicted by the Turkish courts of the reckless killing of Cerys Potter. This is a landmark judgment. Does the Minister accept that it will have an impact only if the Turkish authorities insist on basic health and safety standards in such exercises as white water rafting?
I pay tribute to the tireless work that my hon. Friend has put into campaigning on behalf of his constituents. I spoke to the Turkish tourism Minister following my meeting earlier this year with my hon. Friend and his constituents, and I plan to be in contact with the Turkish Minister again in the wake of the court judgment so that we can offer the support and assistance that the Turks may wish to have from us in respect of learning some of the lessons from this tragic case.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following the Foreign Secretary’s reply to my question earlier on British arms to Syria, may I seek your advice on how what is clearly a cross-party concern to have a vote on a substantive motion in the House prior to any action being authorised can be facilitated, certainly before the recess, which is barely a month away? Would it not be a disappointment if the House had to be brought back from the recess? Could an Opposition motion be tabled which could get cross-party support, including among the leading signatories, and be debated in Opposition time? Would that be in order?
There are a number of parliamentary opportunities potentially open to the right hon. Gentleman and others. First, there is the vehicle of the debates that take place under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. That would be one opportunity. Secondly, it is open to the Opposition to use an Opposition day and to proceed with the matter in that way, either with an exclusively Opposition-signed motion or a motion signed more widely. I must say I have the sense that the Government are hinting that they would not dream of executing a policy decision of the kind that is being considered without first seeking a debate in the House and a vote on a substantive motion. That would obviously be the democratic course. I think it is the democratic course on a substantive motion that the Government have in mind. I am not sure that there was any other idea ever in their mind, but I feel sure that if it was in their mind, it was speedily expunged as undemocratic and inappropriate.
The hon. Gentleman has done that. He and others will take that as an explicit commitment by the Foreign Secretary that there will be no implementation of such a decision without the prior assent in the form of a vote on a substantive motion in this House of Commons. I think we are now clear. Happiness is now universal in the Chamber—well, almost universal.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I think we could complete that happiness. When the Foreign Secretary answered my earlier question, which was further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain), as he sat down he was heard by Members on the Opposition Benches to have audibly said, “Yes.” If we could record that in Hansard, that would be very helpful, even though it was said from a sedentary position.
I think I will command universal assent when I say that the Hansard writers are expert, professional public servants of unimpeachable integrity who would not be bettered in any part of the United Kingdom in any professional capacity. [Hon. Members: “ Hear, hear.”] Good. We are agreed on that.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker, of which I have given you notice. As you are aware, I have been pursuing the matter of sex offences and police cautions over many months now, and on 23 April, in pursuit of that I tabled a question to the Justice Secretary, which unfortunately fell with prorogation. I then retabled it on 13 May. When by 4 June I had received no response, my office contacted the Ministry of Justice and was told that the question would be answered “shortly”. When there was still no answer by 13 June, my office again contacted the Ministry of Justice and was told that it was “awaiting clearance from special advisers.”
There are two points to my point of order, Mr. Speaker. The first one is, and I hope you will agree, that the delay that I have experienced in getting an answer to the question is unacceptable. Secondly, is it acceptable that special advisers, whatever their responsibilities, can be used as a means of delaying response to a written parliamentary question? If you can satisfy me on those two points, joy will be unconfined.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The short answer to his twofold question is yes and no. I agree that it is unacceptable that he should have had to have waited for as long as he has done for substantive answers to his question, and secondly, it is not acceptable that anyone should be involved in a process of effectively delaying ministerial answers to hon. or right hon. Members.
The right hon. Gentleman and the House will appreciate that answers to parliamentary questions are not a matter for me directly, but I do deplore, in the most explicit terms, any failure to provide substantive answers in a timely manner. I also remind the right hon. Gentleman and the House that the Procedure Committee, under the distinguished chairmanship of the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), is monitoring departmental performance in this area. The right hon. Gentleman might wish to draw his particular unfortunate experience to the attention of the Committee. I hope that that is helpful and that the appetite for points of order has now been met.
Common Agricultural Policy
[Relevant documents: The First Report of the European Scrutiny Committee, HC 83-I, Chapter 1; the First Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, Greening the Common Agricultural Policy, HC 170; and the Government response, HC 654, Session 2012-13.]
I beg to move,
That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 15396/11, a draft Regulation establishing rules for direct payments to farmers under support schemes within the framework of the Common Agricultural Policy, No. 15425/11, a draft Regulation on support for rural development by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), No. 15397/11, relating to a draft Regulation on establishing a common organisation of the markets in agricultural products (Single CMO Regulation), and No. 15426/11, a draft Regulation on the financing, management and monitoring of the Common Agricultural Policy; and supports the Government’s continuing efforts to amend these proposals in order to secure better value for money for the taxpayer and establish a greener, simpler CAP that enables the development of an innovative, competitive and market-orientated farming industry and thriving rural communities.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate these important issues in the House today. It is particularly timely because next week the Secretary of State will be going to Luxembourg in the expectation of securing a deal on the common agricultural policy at the Agriculture Council. With CAP reform subject to co-decision for the first time, the negotiations between the Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission have been intensive during the last few months, and indeed are likely to be during the next few days as well. It is thanks to the sterling efforts of the current Irish EU presidency that a potential deal is now within reach.
As many hon. Members will be well aware, the Government’s priority on CAP reform has been to negotiate a good deal for UK farmers, taxpayers and consumers, and that means working to deliver a greener, simpler CAP that continues to orientate itself to the market, increases the international competitiveness of EU agriculture, and increases our capacity to deliver environmental outcomes.
Does the Minister agree that successive Governments have tried to reform the common agricultural policy and there has been very little progress, although in the past previous Conservative Governments have tried to make out to the public that they have actually made some progress when they have not?
The hon. Gentleman is right that it is a long, hard business to reform the CAP. The sadness is that occasionally within negotiations some member states want to turn the clock back, and even to forgo the reforms that have already been accomplished, so I will not pretend anything other than that this is a long, hard process and the advantages and the movement forward that we gain are not always as far and as quick as we would wish them to be.
We want to see an efficient and responsive agricultural sector not just across the EU, but globally, and the CAP should be central to helping us achieve that. It is therefore essential that the CAP continues to reform and to reduce reliance on damaging direct subsidies that do not offer good value for money or deliver the public goods we want. The UK has worked extremely hard to engage with like-minded member states throughout the ongoing negotiations to ensure that the CAP continues on the path of reform, but we know that other member states and elements in the European Parliament are determined to turn the clock back and reverse some of the hard-won reforms of MacSharry and Fischler. We simply cannot allow that to happen.
I will touch on a few of the priority areas that will be the focus of our negotiating efforts over the next week. First, market intervention remains a prime concern. As we all know, the CAP has made great progress over the years in reducing reliance on expensive and trade-distorting measures that interfere with the market and helped to create the butter mountains and wine lakes of the past. I was therefore very disappointed when in March the European Parliament voted through amendments that would move EU agriculture away from market orientation. Those proposals would increase budget pressures for old-style market support. That is not an acceptable use of taxpayers’ money. It hits consumers twice; they pay for their food once through their taxes and again at the tills.
The EU sugar regime, for example, constricts supply in the market and adds costs for British food and drink producers and ultimately for the consumer. The combined effect of EU beet quotas and high tariffs on cane imports means that the current EU regime has driven up the wholesale price of sugar by 35% and added 1% to the food bills of hard-pressed families. Members states had previously agreed to end the restrictive sugar beet production quotas by 2015, but there has been incredible pressure to unpick that agreement. In our compromise in March, we agreed a partial extension of sugar beet quotas to 2017. I am disappointed that Members of the European Parliament voted to extend the quotas further to 2020. That is unacceptable. The situation is compounded by the lack of a level playing field for sugar cane imports, something we are working to change. We need to remain fully committed to moving the CAP in the right direction towards greater market orientation. Nothing must be left to chance. Butter mountains and wine lakes must remain a thing of the past.
I know that many hon. Members have an interest in the proposed greening of the CAP. The Government believe that the CAP should reward farmers for the public goods they deliver, such as environmental benefits and protecting and enhancing wildlife. Pillar two of the CAP is the best place to fund that, which is why at the European Council in February the Prime Minister secured the additional flexibility to be able to transfer up to 15% of our direct payments budget to fund our rural development and environmental programmes.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the concerns of the National Farmers Union and a whole alliance of farming organisations in that regard, and not just in north Yorkshire. Bearing in mind that our farmers already commit to many greening policies through stewardship schemes, 15%, or even 11%, would be unacceptably high and would make our farmers uncompetitive.
I am afraid that is an area where the National Farmers Union and the Government simply do not agree. I believe that we currently have extremely good higher level stewardship schemes within pillar two, and I want those to continue and to prosper. I want us to ensure that we can continue payments on some of the older schemes, where we have accrued benefit, which I do not want us to lose. I am absolutely clear that where we use the pillar two payments in the most effective way, we will be doing so to enhance the position of those who work the land and confer on it public goods. For instance, one of my priorities will be to see what we can do in upland areas, where people farm in less favourable conditions and where it might make all the difference, but I simply do not agree that the best way to distribute money is necessarily through pillar one.
Will the Minister expand on that? Farmers have expressed their concern to me in recent weeks and months over the transfers to pillar two. How can more effective use be made of the arrangements so that those farmers are not put at a competitive disadvantage? What fine-tuning can be carried out? How can we get more bang for our buck in the pillar two funding?
A simple answer—I appreciate that it might be considered a simplistic one—is that we target the funding better towards the places where it will have the most effect. We have a highly efficient and effective agriculture industry and we do not need to target funding at all sectors. We need to ensure that it reaches the places where it will have the greatest effect. As I have said, this is where we part company with the National Farmers Union, which would like us to maintain the maximum funding within pillar one. We believe, however, that pillar two is the most effective vehicle for benefiting environmental interests, which are important, and for directing support to the areas of this country’s agriculture that need it most.
The Minister is absolutely right to place the emphasis on pillar two. The figure for voluntary modulation to which he referred was 15%, but can he confirm that the figure for voluntary modulation has previously been as high as 19%? Can he also expand on what the 15% figure is going to mean for farmers, and on the implications for the Treasury in this regard?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman as full an answer as he would wish. First, we have not yet agreed the deal, so we do not know whether that voluntary modulation figure will stand. Secondly, a lot will depend on the design of the schemes and on how we implement them at national level. We have been pushing the argument in Europe that, in relation to the devolved Administrations, we want as much flexibility and local determination as possible in the design of operation. We want to give Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales the opportunity to use their own discretion on behalf of their own farming businesses, as they will know the best way of implementing the schemes in those countries. If we are successful in our objective of achieving that flexibility, as we have been so far, we will effectively have a devolved CAP.
Absolutely. That has been one of our key objectives during the negotiations, and we have worked closely with Ministers from the devolved Administrations in that process. On any objective assessment, the Secretary of State has been remarkably successful in getting those elements written into the scripts that have emerged from the Council. The difficulty now is that we need to reach agreement with the European Parliament, and we want to ensure that the elements survive that process.
The hon. Gentleman accepts my point. That arrangement created a level playing field across the whole of the EU. The reason that the NFU is concerned is that it is probably only English farmers who could lose 15%, thus making this an issue of competition.
The Minister said that only the devolved Administrations will be allowed to tailor their schemes to the needs of their own farmers, but that would be inherently unfair on the English farmer. I hope that he will agree that this is a wonderful opportunity to revisit some of the schemes, because some of the active upland farmers, who are often tenants, have been disadvantaged by the way in which the current schemes operate.
I hope that I have not misled the House in any way on this. We will bring forward our own proposals that will apply to England. I was simply making the point that the devolved Administrations would not have to conform to an English model. They will be able to devise their own schemes that will work best for them.
I am extremely interested in the Minister’s point about the United Kingdom having policies that are relevant to our own interests. In relation to the review of competences, will he tell us whether there is any intention to repatriate the common agricultural policy?
That depends on how we define repatriation. We have been arguing strongly for increased flexibility at national and regional level for those countries that have devolved Administrations. The obvious examples are the United Kingdom and Belgium, both of which feel strongly about this matter. We need the option to define some of the terms and regulations that will be put in place, so that they match our forms of agriculture. There is already divergence within this country over the application of the CAP. For example, there are still historic payments in Scotland. In my personal view, there will eventually be a need for internal convergence on that issue, but it is for the Scots to decide on the rate of change and on whether that should happen sooner or later. I believe that it is a distorting element at the moment.
The UK Government also argued, however, that we did not want a sudden, bumpy transition that would put the Scottish Government in difficulties while they were trying to achieve their objectives. So, although we want internal convergence, we have asked for as smooth a transition as possible because that will be in the interests of the devolved Administrations. There is already a considerable degree of variation in the way in which the current scheme works. We are trying to ensure that that continues and is enhanced under the new rules.
The Minister has put on record his intention to help hill and upland farmers in England. At the moment, there are three rates for the single payment, relating to moorlands, severely disadvantaged areas and lowlands. Would it not be advantageous to upland farmers if we had only moorland and lowland payments?
Wales will have the same capacity as Scotland to apply its own CAP rules within the overall rules, although the rules that will apply in Wales will not be quite the same because Wales will not be starting from the same position as Scotland. There is already an increased degree of convergence in Wales. The situation is not exactly the same, but that freedom is in the script for the settlement that we have agreed so far.
I should perhaps continue with my speech for a few minutes, rather than take any more interventions.
We do not believe that the original proposal for greening direct payments offered the same value for money as our existing agri-environmental schemes, and we have been working hard to move the negotiations in a positive direction. Any greening must be meaningful, administratively simple and deliver real environmental benefits for the taxpayers’ money that is spent on it. Value for taxpayers’ money is vital, which is why I am also opposed to proposals under which it would be possible to get paid twice for carrying out the same greening measures under both pillar one and pillar two.
No decisions have been taken on how greening will be implemented but, importantly, the position we agreed at the March Council included, as I have said, increased flexibility for member states and regions to deliver greening through a national scheme, if they so wish.
The Minister is being very generous in taking interventions. Will he respond to the concern of many farmers that the flexibility that the UK Government have understandably negotiated for our farmers could be interpreted very differently by farmers in other member nations and that it could, in fact, be interpreted to the disadvantage of our own farmers?
Obviously, we try as far as possible to eliminate potential disadvantages. I cannot say that we will be successful across the board, because this is a negotiated settlement. Where possible we try to make sure that we all play to common ground rules, but with local interpretation. It is clear, for instance, that lowland dairy farming in this country is very different from growing olives on a Greek island. Different criteria apply and we want to make sure that we recognise the differences as well as the common basis.
I appreciate the Minister’s understanding of this complex issue. Many farmers who have had to leave their comfort zone and consider doing other things will also be impacted by the CAP changes, so will help be made available to those who wish to diversify?
I am grateful for that question. A lot will depend on the local determination in Northern Ireland for the options under pillar two, which provides the capacity for supporting diversification. The relevant Northern Ireland Minister will have to decide the extent to which voluntary modulation applies and whether the pillar two schemes will be devised to support diversification. The capacity is there and the decision on whether it will happen or not will be a local one.
The Minister is being very gracious in the number of interventions he is willing to take. The UK has received the lowest EU share of the rural development budget, which will impact on schemes such as agri-environmental schemes, the less favoured area compensatory allowance and farm modernisation. Will the Government balance the reduction in rural development with funds from, for instance, pillar one?
The hon. Gentleman asks a basic question about voluntary modulation. We have already indicated that we will probably wish to see significant modulation from pillar one to pillar two in England. Obviously, other structural funds could be used for those purposes, if desired. On rural development, there is a need to utilise every possible source of funding to improve the rural economy. We are not simply talking about what is available through CAP funding to support agricultural and rural development.
Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman intervenes, may I gently point out that this is a 90-minute debate? The Minister’s speech is a matter of considerable importance and we listen to it with interest and respect, but no fewer than nine hon. and right hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, each and every one of whom is present and expectant. I know that Members will wish to tailor their contributions accordingly. If Sir James wishes, nevertheless, to persist—doubtless he will—I ask him to do so with great brevity.
I will be very brief, Mr Speaker. I would be grateful if the Minister put on the record the Government’s position on voluntary modulation but the other way around. Moving on from his argument about taking 15% from pillar one to pillar two, do the Government strongly oppose those in other countries who wish to have the flexibility to move money from pillar two to pillar one?
We do not believe that is a sensible position. We are not likely to succeed in preventing it, but we will look very carefully at where it may be applied and whether it will distort the agricultural market overall.
I take to heart what you have said, Mr Speaker. I was trying to allow Members to ask legitimate questions, but let me now make progress.
Simplification must be at the heart of all our CAP reforms. That is one of the Government’s priorities. Whatever the outcome, we must have a CAP that is straightforward for farmers to follow and simple for our national Administrations to implement.
We have made progress at home, through the farming regulation taskforce, in looking at unnecessary red tape and reducing burdens on farmers. It is important that we do not undo that good work with complicated changes in the CAP. I firmly believe that we should be getting out of farmers’ hair and freeing them from the burden of unnecessary red tape. We have already made significant progress. Since 2011, we have identified £13 of savings to farmers for every £1 of compliance costs added.
I know, however, that there is more to be done and I am determined to take further steps towards a more risk-based approach to inspections that will allow farmers who consistently achieve high standards to earn recognition and receive less frequent visits. We must work together to achieve this. It is important that European rules do not knock us off our course. Having made such good progress at home, I do not want CAP reform to bring additional burdens.
On regionalisation, which I have already mentioned, amendments clarifying the regional implementation of the CAP are very important. A reformed CAP must deliver benefits for farmers, taxpayers and consumers throughout the UK, and to ensure that, we must have the clarity to implement the CAP in line with our devolution arrangements. Achieving this is a priority for the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, and we will push hard to get it next week.
I cannot conclude without mentioning the CAP budget. As hon. Members will know, the Prime Minister negotiated a 13% cut in the overall CAP budget at the European Council in February. The smaller EU budget negotiated by the Prime Minister is appropriate in the current economic climate, and the reduction to the CAP budget made an important contribution in that regard. This reduction in EU expenditure will be to the benefit of all UK taxpayers.
The allocation of the CAP budget between member states has not yet been finalised, but it would appear that the UK’s share of the CAP will remain roughly equal to its existing share. How the CAP budget will be divided between the UK regions and nations is still to be agreed. Discussions between my officials and their counterparts in the devolved Administrations are now under way and I understand that a number of models for the distribution of pillar one and pillar two funds are being developed.
I hope that the motion captures the UK’s vision for a future CAP. I look forward to the debate and hope that the House will support the Government’s continuing efforts to secure a greener, simpler CAP that delivers better value for the taxpayer and enables the development of an innovative, competitive and market-oriented farming industry and thriving rural communities.
We welcome this opportunity to scrutinise progress towards reform of the common agricultural policy. I was going to say to the Minister that it seems like we debated the CAP only yesterday, but then I recalled that we did so in Committee.
The Secretary of State and the Minister may regard it as a measure of success that they have not faced criticism from one side in their negotiations, but they have in fact faced criticism from all sides, including farmers, farmers unions, Ministers in devolved Governments—particularly, but not exclusively, the Scottish Government—and environmental groups. Perhaps the Secretary of State is attempting a divide and conquer strategy—splitting the competing interests in order to diminish their effectiveness and leaving him free to argue his own way in European Union negotiations—but such a strategy has real dangers that can only diminish the outcomes for the UK. Being surrounded by attacks on their negotiating stance leaves Ministers looking weak and vulnerable. I am sure that the Commission, the President and the European parliamentarians involved in decision making will have noticed that isolation at home and will continue to utilise that weakness in negotiations.
That is just on the home front. Likewise, in Brussels and Strasbourg, the days of the UK being at the vanguard of progressive, like-minded nations on CAP reform are, as in so many other areas of policy, a fond but distant memory. The Government are trying to lead and to build on the collaborative approach to previous negotiations, but they have alienated far too many former friends.
No one can have failed to notice the intervention today in The Daily Telegraph—my daily reading—of the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who draws an analogy between the Government’s approach to Europe and the heroic but doomed charge of the Light Brigade. The Secretary of State, like his Prime Minister, is boldly and valiantly galloping into the field of diplomatic battle: he and the Prime Minister are the Lord Raglan and Lord Cardigan of CAP reform and European relations, charging headlong into the cannons of Brussels and being scythed down, but nevertheless riding heroically into Eurosceptic mythology, mayhem and madness.
The Government have done their best to alienate potential diplomatic partners with their swivel-eyed lunacy—not my words, Mr Speaker—on the EU. That cannot but affect the negotiations on CAP reform and, as important, lessen the outcomes for UK farmers and consumers and for sustainable production here, in other nations and in the developing world.
On that fundamental point, does my hon. Friend agree that the idea that the CAP can be reformed in a big bang is nonsense? Reform must be predicated on sensible negotiations. The Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe, says that there cannot be sensible negotiations if the British Government are confused about their position in Europe and send the message that they are essentially Eurosceptic.
My hon. Friend, who has great knowledge of this area, is right. It is as though the Government are playing with one hand behind their back. I have great sympathy for the Minister, because although he has great knowledge and wants to work in the best interests of UK farming, his colleagues are not making it easy for him.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those kind words. I am interested to know what is the position of the Labour party today. Does it support or oppose the budget reduction? Would it have failed to argue for the budget reduction, or does it agree that the Prime Minister had a success in those negotiations?
The Minister ought to go back and look at the voting record, because the Labour party voted collectively on that matter.
The thrust of the Minister’s speech was about a more competitive farming industry. We do have a strong farming industry. The question is whether he and his Eurosceptic colleagues can carry that forward through the negotiations. I commend the work of UKRep officials in trying to get the very best outcome from a misguided ministerial approach to the EU. They have stuck their fingers in diplomatic dams, while Ministers have been digging away the foundations. I suspect that the Minister has been somewhat dismayed and has done his best among a very bad lot, but it has been a model exercise in how not to win friends and how not to influence people.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has a vision of the perfect negotiating strategy that his side might have. Might that include giving away half our rebate to get a fundamental reform of the agricultural policy? Will he remind me how successful that was?
There, once again, speaks the historic Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party. We have always had the clear position that negotiations on the CAP, the common fisheries policy, on which I negotiated, and on Europe more generally are best served by honesty, transparency, frankness and collaboration. I must make some progress, given your dictate, Mr Speaker.
The Government’s approach both in the UK and in the EU has been wanting. Where does that leave us at this critical stage of the negotiations? At EU level, we are taking not two steps forward and one back, but one step forward and three back. The Secretary of State put it well when he wrote to the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee in February:
“overall I am disappointed in the outcome of the vote in Agriculture Committee”.
So are we. He continued:
“The amendments turn back the clock in terms of achieving good value for money from rural development, especially agri-environment, and do nothing to continue orientating European agriculture to the market.”
We agree, Secretary of State, we agree. He continued:
“There is a significant watering down of the greening proposals”.
It is all getting a bit gloomy, but there is worse:
“I would emphasise concern on the outcome of the vote on the single CMO where the compromises put a halt to, and even reverse, the direction of reform that CAP has been on”.
Yes, the direction of reform and the progress towards reform that had been achieved, including by Labour Secretaries of State working effectively, collaboratively and intelligently with like-minded progressive member states, are being reversed. How times have changed; how progress has stalled and even been reversed in some areas.
I remind the Secretary of State and his Ministers that his criticism of the lack of progress must be laid fairly and squarely at his own door. It is not enough to bemoan a lack of progress, or even a regression into old-style CAP production support, when that has happened under his leadership of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, his Prime Minister’s leadership of the country and his party’s little-Englander, banner-waving, terrified-of-UKIP style of leadership. They have contributed to our current position. “Speak softly but carry a big stick,” has been replaced by, “Shout loudly and antagonise the neighbours.” Despite all that, we will continue here and in Brussels and Strasbourg to support the Government when they try to do the right thing. We just want them to try harder and negotiate cleverer. That is the backdrop to where we are now.
Many of the detailed contributions today will rightly be focused on farming and technical in character. Before I put some questions to the Minister, it is worth reiterating that Labour strongly believes that farming goes hand-in-hand with sound, sustainable farming practices. In addition to delivering food security and affordability, this CAP reform should not shy away from its broader sustainability remit. Profitable farm businesses are based on sustainable farming practices such as protecting and enhancing soil quality and the water environment; conserving special and priority species and habitats, landscape features and archaeological sites; minimising the carbon footprint of farming; promoting access to the countryside, high animal welfare standards and links to the wider rural economy and communities, and much more. That, by the way, is why pillar two and rural development cannot be overlooked while we strive to ensure the productivity and competitiveness of farming.
Collectively, the Government and their agencies have worked with farmers, landowners and non-governmental organisations throughout the UK over many years to deliver food security for this country; to produce affordable food for the consumer; to protect what we, visitors and tourists love aesthetically in our landscape and countryside, which boosts the wider rural economy; to conserve our habitats, wildlife and biodiversity; to enhance the wider public goods in management of our ecosystem and biodiversity; and, in all that, to adapt to the challenges of climate change. On top of that, farmers have been asked to work with the Government as the CAP moves towards a more market-oriented system, with less reliance on payments for production and more transparent use of public money for public goods.
The head of the National Farmers Union, Peter Kendall, is not alone among the farming unions in his concern that farmers are being left high and dry, confused and condemned by a Government who are as out of touch with farmers as they are with the EU negotiations. He states:
“Instead of delivering a genuine policy framework that embraces and fosters a modern, market orientated, competitive farming sector, free of unnecessary red tape, I fear we will be left with a complex mish-mash of competing and contradictory policy components which will leave farmers facing more bureaucracy and more distortions in the market than ever before.”
I ask the DEFRA ministerial team, who are leading our negotiations, how that came to pass on their watch.
How likely is it that the ongoing dispute over co-financing and the movement of funds between pillars one and two could scupper progress at the June negotiations? Equally important, if there is a delay, are there specific improvements that the Minister will seek in the time gained? Is there any possibility of using that time to reverse the undoubtedly backwards steps towards more old-style market support? Will he say whether the farming unions’ argument is correct that, because of the differential application of the transfer of funds between pillars one and two among nations, their members will unavoidably be placed at a competitive disadvantage? If so, will the Minister share with the House his analysis of how that is likely to affect profitability and competitiveness in each sector, as well as UK farming as a whole against our European neighbours? How will the Government ensure the level playing field to which the Minister referred? Our farmers are not afraid of competition, but it must be fair and open.
We have considered competitive disadvantage across the EU, but how will the Minister deal with the same question across constituent parts of the UK? For example, Scottish Ministers have made it clear that they want maximum flexibility to extend their support—including to sectors such as livestock—well beyond the levels of support that may be given to English or Welsh farmers. What is the Minister’s thinking on that and how will he respond to requests from Scottish Ministers for complete, up-front devolution of funding to the Executive? Will he argue against further use of coupled payments in devolved Administrations, or accept that that is part and parcel of devolution? If the latter, how will he explain that to farmers in England?
How will the Secretary of State respond to the view of the Country Land and Business Association, Tenant Farmers Association and farming unions in England that the introduction of greening elements reduces the need for such a substantial transfer of funds from pillar one to pillar two for environmental measures? Does the Minister believe that such transfers are essential to maintain environmental benefits and not substitutable for pillar one measures, or that they are additional and will extend the future scope of environmental measures?
Farmers want clarity on DEFRA’s position on opt-outs from greening proposals. Does the Minister intend that our farmers should be able to opt out of the specific greening measures proposed, forgoing just the 30% proportion of the new payment but without any further penalty; or will he hold them to complying with the whole package, with no opt-out other than a full one? I trust he can explain his position today.
It comes to something when the president of the NFU remarks candidly that “negotiators have come back from Europe with less than we started with.”
That is hardly a ringing endorsement of Ministers’ batting for British food, farming and rural communities. With the Secretary of State as Lord Raglan in this assault, UKRep and DEFRA officials are playing an heroic role as negotiators, unquestioningly negotiating through the valley of diplomatic death he has made for them. There is confusion and misdirection aplenty as UK interests get cut down again and again by the well positioned, well dug-in cannonades of other European nations. The French commander, Marshal Pierre Bosquet, exclaimed of the futile but spectacular charge of the Light Brigade:
“C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.”
It is magnificent, but it is not war. Russian officers offered less praise and more regret, saying of the headlong charge, “C’est la folie.” It is madness.
Labour will continue to engage directly with farmers, farming unions, environmental organisations, MEPs, colleagues in devolved Administrations and Governments, and all who want to see CAP reform deliver for food security and affordability, environmental and wider public benefits, and rural communities. We will support the Government to get the best deal, despite a cack-handed approach to negotiations thus far. I wish the Minister good luck. Where he gets it right he will have our support, but there is a long way to go.
Order. The House will next be addressed by the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. After her speech there will be a five-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions. We will hear from the Chair of the Committee with, I hope, suitable brevity.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on giving the House the opportunity to discuss the Committee’s two previous reports on this matter, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). I congratulate the Minister on the position he has reached in the negotiations, and thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice) for his sterling work in commencing proceedings. I will stick to English, Mr Speaker, tempting as it is to break into French, Danish or Spanish, as I think your strictures on timing would preclude that. I spent a number of months working on the first ever co-decision procedure on road transport as a Member of the European Parliament, and although I am delighted that the democratic arm of the European Parliament is participating in the negotiations, that obviously adds an extra dimension to those negotiations.
I thank hon. colleagues from all sides for the work they have done with me in looking to the next round of common agricultural policy reforms after 2013, and I will dwell for a moment on the background to our current position. I represent a deeply rural constituency—having moved from the Vale of York to Thirsk, Malton and Filey—and a greater upland area than I represented previously, as well as lowland areas. The backdrop of the wettest autumn, with substantial flooding in my constituency and many other parts of the UK, followed by the coldest spring has had a huge impact on the harvest. We are expecting a smaller harvest and I understand that less milk was produced. Most worrying is that the harvest is expected to be down by potentially 30%, and as I understand it, for the first time in 11 years the United Kingdom will be a net importer of wheat.
Against that backdrop of depressed farming incomes, and the implications for food security, I would like to press the Minister on certain issues, particularly the greening of the common agricultural policy. As a number of hon. Members have said, UK farmers already green to a much greater extent and at some cost to themselves. In particular, I draw the attention of the Minister and the House to the position of tenant farmers across this country—not just those in the uplands of northern England—who seem to have a unique position in the European Union. The Committee’s report “Farming in the uplands” stated that the Committee is conscious that the position of tenant farmers is unique to UK agriculture, and that the impact of any reform on that group should not be overlooked by either the Commission or DEFRA. We concluded that tenants—and indeed commoners, many of whom I represent—might be disadvantaged in accessing agri-environment schemes.
The concerns of tenant farmers about some other reform proposals are wider and reflected by the Tenant Farmers Association. Those concerns include that farmers might be disadvantaged by the proposed entitlement scheme, that only those who made a valid claim on at least one hectare of land in 2011 under the existing single payment scheme will be eligible for direct payments under the new regime, and that some landlords may use that to capitalise inappropriately on changes brought under existing tenancies in order to bank land ahead of any new regime. On the other side, the CLA has said that it is not aware of such things, but I hope the Minister will keep the matter under review.
Tenant farmers have also raised concerns about the active farmer proposals on which the Minister might like to update the House. Wildlife trusts, and others, have said that the proposals are potentially unworkable and catastrophic for the management of the land. The costs of administering some of the present schemes for tenant farmers are prohibitively high, with lawyers being retained and up to 30% of the agreement used just to administer the scheme. This debate is therefore a useful opportunity to review the position of tenant farmers under the CAP.
In response to our debate on interventions and a potential transfer from pillar one to pillar two, will the Minister state whether he proposes that the measure will be subject under pillar two to co-financing? I know it is the view of the NFU and others that it should be, but the question that the House must address, and the Minister answer, is whether the Treasury will be prepared to co-finance. We have a comprehensive spending review next week. Will there be money if there is a 13% reduction in the CAP budget?
That is another argument in favour of the status quo. I am slightly arguing against myself, because Filey and other parts of the Thirsk and Malton constituency receive rural development funds through the LEADER programme, which is all to the good—obviously, I am here to help Filey to receive more in that regard. I hope that the Minister will address that. He touched on the 13% reduction in the CAP, but we have let to learn what the reduction in DEFRA’s budget will be.
I have discussed the position of tenants, the weather conditions and the drop in farm incomes, which in turn has food security implications, which I hope the Minister will address, as well as updating us on active farming.
I shall say a few words about ensuring that there is no discrimination against the UK farmer. I understand that Scotland currently receives 16% of the UK pot of money, yet produces less than 12% of the UK’s agricultural output. We need to be aware of that and restore the balance between Scotland and England, particularly for the border regions of Northumbria, Yorkshire and County Durham, which are affected by the imbalance. Decoupled direct support plays a pivotal role, but we should not put further pressure on farmers in England, and there should be no further modulation. Any increase in voluntary modulation from 9% to 15% would be resisted by farmers. Many of the farming organisations have lobbied vigorously in that regard.
The Minister and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire, argued that there should be no distortions and no negative impact on competitiveness in any switch from direct payments to rural development. I therefore hope that the Minister can conclude that there will be no extra burdens on English farmers from the negotiations.
The proof of the success of CAP reform for the UK farmer will be in the way it is implemented in England. I am conscious of the roles that DEFRA and the Minister play—they both negotiate on behalf of the UK but have specific roles in relation to English farmers. I make a plea from the heart on behalf of those I represent and the wider farming community that our farmers are rewarded for their toil. The House needs to ensure that it sends the message that we intend to continue to be self-sufficient in food and remain a major exporter. A drift towards being dependent on imports is a drift in the wrong direction.
All power to the Minister’s elbow. We will continue to monitor developments extremely closely. The Committee wants to establish a greener, simpler CAP, with emphasis on the simpler, and a CAP that is competitive and provides for farmers and rural communities.
I am delighted to speak after the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
Food security delivered by a viable farming industry and the sustainable management of our natural resources must be compatible. It would appear that the CAP does its best to ensure that they are not. Greening is a lie. The proposals are not greening proposals. Modifications that are being made in the proposals to pillar one can be said to be greening in nature, but the proposals do not constitute the greening of the CAP as a whole. Only 13% of the funding under pillar one goes to specific greening measures. In many cases, good farmers are doing those things anyway. The real objection is that money is being used for subsidies around Europe instead of being used to encourage farmers to improve their practices and run better businesses. That is the tragedy of the CAP’s current structure. The CAP budget is €57.7 billion, which is around 40% of the EU budget. It is staggering that the money is being used predominantly to reward productivity and to increase product, and not to incentivise better businesses and improve the wider environment.
I compliment the Minister—I do not always do so—for the way in which he has handled the debate. He not only took a lot of questions, but sought to engage the House. There is broad consensus in the House on the position that the UK Government would like to get to in Europe. The tragedy is that the 27 different countries have very different farming industries. Many of them have a vested interest in having subsidies prop up their ineffective farming industries.
The key issues are on the use of funds. The right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice) was right to correct what I said earlier—10% modulation was compulsory and 9% was voluntary in the past. That meant a total of 19% modulation as opposed to the 15% voluntary modulation that the Government propose. The difficulty is that the 15% is 15% of less, and the 19% was 19% of more. The will have a dramatic impact on advancing the environmental stewardship schemes and the green elements of our budget will be dramatic.
I take on board the points made by the Chair of the Committee and the right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire about how the proposal will impact on farming businesses in the UK. This is not a zero-sum game, but if we put the money into the schemes that hon. Members would ideally like—the greening schemes that will improve our environment—we will, to an extent, disadvantage our farmers, because they compete against their counterparts in Europe with less subsidy. It is as simple as that. We might all believe that that subsidy is wrong and should not exist—subsidies should not exist to prop up failing industries—but it exists none the less, which is a disadvantage to our farmers.
I do not have time, I am afraid.
The Chair of the Committee was absolutely right to put the central question: what is the Treasury going to do? Will it allow enough funds to DEFRA to ensure that we can put the money that is needed into the environmental schemes to support the natural environment White Paper it produced last year and to support our farmers, or will DEFRA budgets be cut in such a way that our farmers and the environment suffer? That is the question.
Time will curtail what I say in the debate—I will not say all I would have liked to say, which will please most of my hon. Friends—but the House will remember that I did most of the negotiations in their early days on behalf of the UK Government. I do not recognise any of the situations that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) described in his somewhat flowery rhetoric.
All hon. Members know that, whatever the outcome of the trilogue discussions, this is a wasted opportunity. For the very first time since the introduction of the CAP, the negotiations take place against a background in which the days of surpluses and dealing with over-production are behind us. We now look to a future of what Sir John Beddington called the perfect storm of increasing demand and a decline in the rate of improvement in productivity. This was therefore an opportunity to restructure the agriculture industry across Europe and equip it to meet that challenge. Only last week, the OECD produced a report stating:
“Changing fundamentals have transformed agricultural markets. These changes appear to be here to stay and will shape the evolution of agricultural markets over the medium term.”
It went on:
“Instead, with energy prices high and rising and production growth declining across the board, strong demand for food, feed, fibre and industrial uses of agricultural products is leading to structurally higher prices”.
I could not have put it better myself, although I did put the case in a similar manner in the early negotiations. This was the opportunity and background against which we could start to wean farmers off direct support, an objective that I think is shared across the House. Unfortunately, those views fell on stony ground, particularly with the Commission, which was determined to refuse to accept the opportunity and challenge, preferring to embed direct payments by greening pillar one. As the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) said, it is a very pale shade of green. We ended up with a set of proposals that were much more complicated, and far from the simplification that the commissioner had proposed and said he was trying to introduce.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister negotiated the multi-annual financial framework settlement, which was, overall, an excellent settlement for the UK. The MFF saw a reduction in the overall EU budget and a reduction in the CAP budget, which, as the then Minister, I had proclaimed. Many Agriculture Ministers around the table wanted more to be spent, yet their own Finance Ministers were singing a different tune. That could not be said of the UK Government—we stuck to the same tune. The issue was bedevilled by the Treasury’s attitude to the rebate, not that there is anything wrong with the rebate fundamentally—I strongly support it. However, the Treasury would rather have its 70p out of the rebate than allow us to claim £1 from the CAP, and that has caused immense difficulties ever since. The MFF also saw the absurdity of France and Italy, in particular, getting what can only be described as substantial, handsome bungs of an extra €1 billion to €1.5 billion.
Enough has been said about the 15% issue, but we have to emphasise that this is a single market and our farmers have to compete across Europe. I cannot say that I speak for our farmers, but I think that most would accept whatever happened to the single farm payment as long as it happened to all farmers across Europe. They are unhappy with any proposition that affects England, but not their competitors.
Greening, as has been said, should have been done in pillar two. It is important that we understand that management of ecological focus areas is more important than mere area. The transition to a flat rate needs to be achieved within the seven-year programme. It is indefensible still to be paying farmers in other parts of the UK on the basis of what they did in 2001. The rural development funding, on which there was some discussion during the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), must include measures to help farmers to become more competitive and innovative, and not just on the environmental front.
This vital industry is part of our food supply chain and needs fair competition. I am afraid that the measure will not provide it.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate on the reform of the common agricultural policy.
I represent a rural constituency in Northern Ireland where the active farmer is prominent, and there is a need to emphasise the role of the active farmer in single farm payments. Farmers have had to withstand difficult weather conditions in the past 18 months. A combination of wet weather last summer and one of the coldest springs have had an impact on agricultural production. Farmers and farming organisations in Northern Ireland, particularly those in my constituency, are looking forward to a fair wind in the CAP reform negotiations to ensure the resilience of farm practice and the business of farming in Northern Ireland.
I have had several discussions with the Minister, both in separate meetings and as a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Central to the success of the growth of the agri-food industry as the bedrock of the economy is a good outcome from the CAP negotiations that will underpin our industry and farm production at all levels; make provision for new entrants; acknowledge the position of the active farmer in terms of payments; and, above all, ensure a stable income for farmers and for those who derive their livelihood from the farm base. This is a long-term political issue that will shape farming and agriculture not only in the UK, but in Ireland too.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I absolutely agree that farmers need to receive a fair income for the work they undertake, notwithstanding difficult weather conditions, soil fertility or other matters.
We must use all the levers at our disposal, including those in the EU, to achieve the best possible outcome for our farmers and our industry. Only last weekend there were some suggestions that farmers in Northern Ireland would be left at a financial disadvantage as a result of the ongoing Government negotiations. I seek assurances from the Minister that the business resilience and capacity of farms in Northern Ireland will be protected in whatever outcomes emerge from the CAP. I have spoken to the Minister’s opposite number in the Republic of Ireland, who is heading up the negotiations, and he has said that farming in Ireland, both north and south, is similar. We are looking for similar outcomes.
I am aware that some farmers involved in full-time farming inherited their farms from their fathers, but in some instances they have not inherited entitlements. What can be done in the current negotiations, and in further discussions at UK level and at devolved level, to secure a position for those farmers who have no entitlements because they did not apply for them back in 2005?
Those are the two principal issues I wanted to raise. I wish the Minister a fair wind in the negotiations. As we enter their final stages next week, the bottom line is to ensure a good outcome for agricultural communities and farm enterprises.