Motion to Take Note
To move that this House takes note of the Report of the European Union Committee on the amended Commission proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Council Regulations (EC) No 1290/2005 and (EC) No 1234/2007, as regards distribution of food products to the most deprived persons in the Union (COM (2010) 486, Council Document 13435/10) (2nd Report, Session 2010-11, HL Paper 44).
My Lords, with your Lordships’ leave I shall also speak to the second Motion in my name.
Your Lordships will recall that two weeks ago on 20 October the House was first asked to consider a report from the European Union committee with a reasoned opinion to the effect that in its view a European Union legislative proposal did not comply with the principle of subsidiarity. Our second report of this Session, which is the subject of these Motions, relates to a proposal concerning the distribution of food products to deprived persons in the European Union and contains the recommendation that the House should issue a reasoned opinion on it and on its subsidiarity. Our sub-committee on agriculture, fisheries and environment initially considered the proposal before it came to the Select Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, the chairman of that sub-committee, is present today, but we have agreed that I should move these Motions.
I do not need to set out again today at length the legislative background, but I stress that through the second Motion today this House is again being asked to exercise new powers under the treaty of Lisbon that became available only on 1 December 2009. The deadline for submitting such a reasoned opinion to the authorities in Brussels is on this occasion 15 November, so we are in plenty of time to get it in.
I turn to the proposal assessed in our report. There is some history which I shall deal with briefly. The food distribution programme, to which the proposal relates, was introduced in 1987, and at that time its primary purpose was to help reduce stockpiles of basic commodities that had been purchased and brought into public intervention stores under the common agricultural policy in order to support prices on the European Union market. Stocks of butter, milk powder, beef, sugar, rice and cereals were released to charitable organisations in participating member states on an annual basis to distribute to the poorer sections of the community.
As your Lordships will know, successive reforms of the common agricultural policy in the 20 or more years since then have greatly reduced the level of intervention stocks, combined of course with the improvement in world commodity markets. As a result, the nature of the scheme has altered, with an increasing focus on purchasing products on the open market.
The current proposal, amending the regulations previously agreed for the scheme, has several objectives. These include formalising the provision for common agricultural policy funds to be used to purchase goods not just from intervention stocks but also on the open market: widening the range of goods that can be purchased in order to take into account nutritional balance; allowing member states also to give preference to food products of union origin; establishing three-year programmes instead of the current annual rounds in order to allow longer-term planning by member states and charities; introducing co-financing by participating member states, generally at a minimum of 25 per cent of eligible costs, with an annual ceiling of €500 million for co-financing from the European Union budget; and enhancing reporting obligations, both for participating countries and for the Commission.
In putting the proposal forward, the Commission has offered a number of justifications for it. They include addressing the problems of hunger, deprivation, poverty and social exclusion in the spirit of the treaty, which states that the Union’s aim is to promote,
“the well-being of its peoples”,
“solidarity among Member States”,
and to contribute to meeting the CAP’s objectives of stabilising markets and ensuring that supplies reach consumers at reasonable prices.
The participation by individual member states in the scheme has always been on a voluntary basis and it will remain so under this proposal. The United Kingdom has not participated in the scheme since the mid-1990s and, in their Explanatory Memorandum to us, the Government have said that this has been because of dwindling UK intervention stocks and the bureaucratic overhead associated with ensuring compliance with the scheme rules in order to prevent fraud. They have also said that they are unconvinced of the merits or appropriateness of the revised proposal. In the Government’s view, the European Union should act only where there are clear additional benefits from collective efforts.
As regards the Commission's justification that addressing problems of hunger, deprivation, poverty and social exclusion can be considered to be in the spirit of the treaties, we comment that the spirit of the treaties can be perfectly well respected without European Union action and can, in any case, be promoted by the Union without following this legislative route. Member states are capable of acting individually to address the issues highlighted.
As regards the Commission's assertion that purchases from the market contribute to the objectives of the common agricultural policy, we see this as questionable, as the extent of such a contribution must depend on numerous factors, including the quantity of food purchased from the market, any reduction in purchases by deprived persons who become eligible for the scheme and the price paid. We see no reason at all why the Union is better placed to organise the purchase of products from the market than member states. We comment as well that the failure of member states to act is not in itself a reason for the Union to act. In any case, the voluntary nature of the scheme suggests that there is no demonstrable need for action, particularly at the Union level. We conclude that there appears to be no compelling argument to suggest that the Union is better placed than member states to ensure a food supply to its most deprived citizens.
We have ensured that the assessment that has been set out in our report has been communicated to national parliaments in other European Union member states. At present, we have heard that only the Swedish parliament may be considering the proposal from a standpoint that is close to ours. Unless several other chambers make similar moves in the next two weeks, the threshold for reaching the formal yellow card is, unfortunately, unlikely to be reached. In my view, that will not prevent the opinion of this House from having a political impact. I am glad to see the Minister nodding at that remark.
Let us be clear; the burden of our report is not to stand against measures to help the neediest members of our society, if appropriate, by providing them with food. We recognise that there may well be a need for such action, but we consider that any such action is best taken by national, regional or local governments, who can best assess the needs of their own populations and can also best design measures to meet those needs. The European Union scheme, which is the subject of this proposal, was devised more than 20 years ago in a very different environment, primarily as a channel for siphoning off surpluses from the common agricultural policy. Now it has largely lost that rationale, and the justifications which the Commission is advancing for its continuation seem to us to be ill founded and unconvincing. We see no necessary role for European Union action in this area and, accordingly, we see this proposal as incompatible with the principle of subsidiarity. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of Sub-Committee D. The noble Lord, Lord Roper, has given a very extensive introduction to this rather erudite matter. That is certainly going to shorten what I was going to say quite a lot and I am grateful to him. He is right to take us back to the history of the CAP, and it was perhaps right in the late 1980s and 1990s to utilise the surpluses that we had under the inadequate CAP policy of the time. But as he so rightly said, times have changed and reform of the CAP has taken place. I draw your Lordships’ attention to the committee’s report in 2008 on the future of the CAP, which states in paragraph 6:
“The mid-term review of the Agenda 2000 agreement resulted in the 2003 CAP reform, which marks the culmination of a gradual shift in farm support from product support to direct income support”.
So the CAP has changed, but that has not stopped some in the Commission trying to perpetuate the bad old ways.
A similar proposal to what we are looking at today was presented in the 2008-09 Session and the scrutiny reserve was lifted then. But the committee supported the then Labour Government in their opposition to the proposals and there was a blocking minority in the Council. Following discussions with the European Parliament, the Commission has tweaked its proposal and sent it back to us, and this is what we are discussing today. I would summarise the Commission’s proposal as grandiose empire-building by a few who wish to preserve their jobs in view of the 2013 spending review, which is coming up. I can see them all shuffling papers on their desks, looking to preserve their jobs.
There is no question in my mind that the justification put forward by the Commission is weak and very unconvincing. It fails on two grounds. It goes against the recent trend of CAP reforms, and there is the budget reform in 2013 that I have alluded to. It is quite wrong for the EU to be buying food on the marketplace rather than using intervention stocks. If the intervention stocks have dwindled, and rightly so, then the policy ought to be discontinued from the CAP point of view. If it is felt that this policy ought to continue, then—as the noble Lord, Lord Roper, said—it ought to be down to member states and Governments, but it is a social policy and not a common agricultural policy. It also fails on the grounds of subsidiarity because there is no justification that the Union can do this job better than member states. The fact that it is voluntary and that Britain has not been participating since the mid-1990s shows that it is not something the Union ought to take up.
I have two questions for the Minister. When we held this matter up for scrutiny a couple of weeks ago, we were informed that the Council had yet to adopt a position. I would be grateful if he could tell us what the position is in the Council and whether there is still a blocking minority for this, and whether the Government are still of the view that this is a social policy measure rather than a CAP measure.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Roper, for moving today's Motion. The EU Sub-Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Environment, which I chair, gave detailed consideration to the proposal in relation to the scheme for food for the deprived, which is the subject of the report now before the House. However, I am sure that your Lordships will share my appreciation of the knowledge and insight into the wider political and institutional context which the noble Lord, Lord Roper, has brought to this debate, not least in his role as chairman of the EU Select Committee.
It may be of interest if I quote from the website of the European Commission. The Commission's agriculture and rural development directorate-general states that the scheme was:
“Originally designed to provide surplus stocks of farm produce (‘intervention stocks’) to needy people, the scheme was amended in the mid-1990s to make it possible to supplement intervention stocks with market purchases in certain circumstances”.
In looking forwards, the Commission goes on to say, and this is very apposite:
“Now that surplus stocks are extremely low and unlikely to increase in the foreseeable future, the scheme should allow market purchases on a permanent basis, to complement remaining intervention stocks”.
I need hardly remind your Lordships of the consequences of the common agricultural policy 20 years ago when, as the noble Lord, Lord Roper, said, we had mountains of butter, milk, sugar, cereals and so on. At that time, it was a practical solution to let charitable organisations in participating member states distribute those goods to the poorest sections of the Community. For all that the process of reforming the CAP still has further to go—my sub-committee expects to look closely at reform options from the Commission at the end of the year—it is fair to say that the changes made since the 1990s have been constructive and far reaching. As the Commission has said, surplus stocks are now very low, and they are expected to remain low.
For the proposed EU scheme to work in future, food needs to be purchased on the market and then put into the distribution system. Twenty years ago, the scheme was based on the availability of surplus stocks; now, with no stocks, it looks as if we will just go out and purchase it. This transformation begs questions about the scheme's efficiency and about its relationship with the CAP. The Commission claims that the scheme helps to meet the CAP's objectives of stabilising markets and ensuring that supplies reach consumers at reasonable prices. We could discuss those claims, but they are not the issues on which this report turns. The central issue is our subsidiarity assessment.
Why should the European Union be considered to be in a better position to determine the nutritional needs of deprived members of member states' communities, and to respond to those needs, than national, regional or local governments? For example, here the Government have introduced the Healthy Start scheme, and I hope the Minister will say more about it. I mention it only because it seems to me to exemplify the role of a member-state Government in looking at the need in the population for which they are responsible and designing an appropriate scheme to meet those needs.
As we acknowledge in the report, member states' participation in the scheme is voluntary and, although the UK has not participated since the mid-1990s, the Commission states that 19 member states currently do. I am tempted to repeat the saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch, not because the scheme rests on cofinancing between member states and the Commission, but because, if we fail to flag up what we see as a failure to comply with the principle of subsidiarity, we risk paying a longer-term price in terms of blurring the lines between actions appropriate for EU involvement and actions which should rightly stay with member states at national, regional or local level.
The sub-committee was clear in its view that this proposal does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity, and I hope that your Lordships will share that view.
My Lords, I remember when the UK last participated in this scheme because I benefited from it. Before I receive commiserations from noble Lords, it was not because I was a poor member of the public who received the unfrozen butter that came out of cold stores in the south-west, but because I was a Member of the European Parliament representing Cornwall and Plymouth and it was a fantastic photo opportunity around Christmas time, when these schemes, whether at European or UK level, strangely came out. I was able to do a press release, and I was reported in the press as securing the south-west’s share of this bounty from the European Union. Unfortunately, I was not pictured distributing our share as Father Christmas, but it was a good wheeze then.
Things were very different at that time. There were surpluses within the common agricultural policy, and rather than export them and destroy the third world’s farming populations, we instead decided to try to save some of our own populations from poverty and starvation at Christmas, which I suppose was not a bad objective. Despite being one of the most pro-European Members of this House, I would say that one of the most important things about Europe is that it knows its limits. Certainly, even when I was a Member of the European Parliament, I voted against things like the working time directive and the drinking water directive, not necessarily because I was against them but because they were things that the European Union should not have been involved in. They should have been left to the member states, which were best placed to decide what was right for them. There is no better example of that than this regulation which is being discussed at European level. I should be very interested to hear from the Minister as to where those negotiations have got to.
I raise one other question, which perhaps is more to do with the administration of the House. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Roper, can inform me as to whether he believes that we now have procedures in the House suitable to ensure that whenever an issue such as this comes up again—exercising our judgment in terms of the yellow card procedure—we can do this quickly enough so that we can raise support among other national Parliaments within the European Union to make sure that our message is heard. I am disappointed that it is just the Swedes who are following our example—that is not a good sign—but I do not commiserate at all with the Members of the European Parliament in the UK this Christmas who will not have the opportunity that I had back in 1994.
My Lords, I declare an interest as new girl on Sub-Committee D, although I have spent a number of years on Sub-Committee G and on the Select Committee. One of the other things I have done in my life is to look at institutions and large organisations. One of the cultural problems of institutions is the difficulty they have in moving forward when times change. That is particularly so when there is no check on personnel or financial commitment. It is even more difficult to make organisations change when the issue looks like “a good thing”, such as this one; the distribution of food products to the most deprived persons in the Union. For someone like me from a social care background, that looks like a good thing. However, as we have heard, the programme began at a time when the excess of food stocks was purchased into public stores under the old common agricultural policy scheme and the temptation to continue the intervention into the affairs of member states by purchasing food from markets for distribution through the EU food programme is almost irresistible, certainly for those committed to work within the Commission.
However, as I said, having spent some years as chair of Sub-Committee G, and now as a member of this committee, I am more than aware of the danger of the Commission moving into areas best served by member states themselves. In Sub-Committee G, we were constantly on the alert for encroachments into health and consumer issues. I spent more than one afternoon thinking about the working time directive. Not to be misunderstood, I am a committed European. There is much we can do as a community to further the lives and interests of our citizens. Food safety and security are clearly such areas close to this debate, where the wider community can and does add value, but some things are not only the right and responsibility of member states, but are local within that state. The distribution of food to poor citizens is one of these.
Tim Lang, professor of food policy at the City University, defines food poverty in the UK as follows:
“Food poverty is worse diet, worse access, worse health, higher percentage of income on food and less choice from a restricted range of foods. Above all food poverty is about less or almost no consumption of fruit & vegetables”.
Other factors include access to a range of healthy foods in local shops, transport, fear of crime, knowledge about what constitutes a healthy diet and the skills to create healthy meals. Is that really an issue for Brussels?
For many years, I was a member of the board of the Food Standards Agency, the independent department set up to protect public health and consumer interests in relation to food. The FSA runs the annual Dame Sheila McKechnie awards for community food groups. I have seen at first hand what local action on food can achieve. Community food projects work to tackle food poverty in their local areas, giving the power of choice and change back to local communities. Projects include food co-ops, community cafes, cooking and nutrition programmes, and courses, markets, breakfast or lunch clubs, school tuck shops, peer training and any project which improves people’s access to healthy, affordable and sustainable food. It is about as local as local action gets.
Community food mapping can identify where food poverty exists. The technique uses local people’s knowledge to map food availability in a specific area. The results can be combined with data from other organisations, such as local authorities, the NHS and business—again, all local. The results can then be used to implement solutions to food poverty by designing initiatives tailored to those local needs.
One example is the North East Food Access Network, which is,
“a network of organisations and individuals promoting access to fresh, affordable, sustainable and culturally appropriate food in the North East region. It is a forum for the exchange of information and advice between projects and networks in the region. It aims to have an influential regional ‘voice’ on addressing the issues of ‘good food’ access for all in the North East and seeks to develop a co-ordinated regional approach to work around food and health”.
At times of austerity, such projects as these are vital to the life of local communities. Certainly, they could use more funding. One of my questions to the Minister is about how local community groups are going to be supported in the future. That would be of great value if it came direct without the added expense that must be involved in the Commission buying goods on the open market for redistribution, which, in addition, can easily distort the markets.
If we are to convince our citizens of the benefits of Europe, rather than it being seen just as an additional drain on the nation’s purse, we should focus EU efforts where they bring best value and doing those things that sovereign states cannot achieve alone. Food networks are local, direct and know their communities. They are not overbureaucratic and, consequently, are flexible in responding to need. Above all, they are transparent. We should leave them uncluttered by intervention by the Commission, however well intended. After all, we know that this kind of centralisation by any institution leads to more money being spent on staff to make assessments to decide on criteria, more forms, applications to be vetted, assurance schemes to prevent fraud and so on.
I would conclude that not only does there appear to be no compelling argument to suggest that the Union is better placed than member states to ensure a food supply to its most deprived citizens, it appears to me that to do so would divert resources from those in non-governmental bodies who do it so well. I support the Motion to issue a reasoned opinion.
My Lords, I have very often criticised the European Union Select Committee as being an expensive white elephant, but I am not going to do that today because it seems to me that it should have praise for the action that it has taken in this instance. Certainly, I shall support the Motion. I am also very pleased to hear so many people, including the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and members of the committee, standing up for the nation state. In particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, criticised centralism and is in favour of localism. That is altogether good, but I am not at all sure that that is achieved through the European Union.
It is interesting that the committee is using the subsidiarity clauses. Of course, we have to go back to 1992, when the clauses were introduced into the treaty on European Union. Indeed, the treaty was sold by Mr Major to his own Back-Benchers by introducing the clause. We were assured at that time that that would put a brake on the European Union gaining more and more powers. I think that eight members of the Conservative Party were sacrificed—or at least given the sack—because they refused to support the Government, and the Bill only just made it through the House of Commons.
There have been far too few challenges. There should have been many more challenges to attempts—successful attempts—by the European Union to accrue more power to itself. There has undoubtedly been an insidious grab for power by the institutions of the European Union to achieve their aim of ever closer union—do not forget that the achievement of “ever closer union” is still in the Lisbon treaty; I do not know how close it is going to get, but the aim is there—and the emasculation of nation states.
The latest paper from the House of Commons Library shows just how much of our legislation, particularly in regulations, is coming from Europe. It gives the figure of 53 per cent. Some people think that the percentage is greater than that. Now, virtually no area of policy is untouched by the European Union leviathan, and the power grab has been given new impetus by the implementation of the Lisbon treaty, which significantly enhances the power of the European Union and its institutions. So it is indeed encouraging that the Select Committee is increasing its watchfulness to ensure that the subsidiarity provisions are respected.
I have concerns about the seemingly lax attitude of the Cabinet and the departmental Ministers in their surveillance of the extension of EU powers. I can only wonder how much influence they have on decisions that are taken. We do not often hear about COREPER—the Committee of Permanent Representatives—which, as I understand it, meets in secret and whose decisions are simply rubber-stamped by Ministers. I have heard that from the mouths of former Cabinet Ministers. Perhaps the new Administration will take a tougher line, but the activities of that very powerful committee should be transparent, and I do not believe that they are at all transparent at the moment. It should publish minutes setting out the positions taken by its members and how they voted. In the interests of parliamentary democracy, the United Kingdom members of COREPER should be seen to be accountable and subject to parliamentary scrutiny at Westminster.
Having said that, once again, I congratulate the committee, and I shall take pleasure in supporting the Motion.
My Lords, I, too, support the Motions of the noble Lord, Lord Roper, on the issue of subsidiarity arising on the amended Commission proposal on the distribution of food products to the most deprived persons in the Union. As in a similar case that we debated on 20 October, I consider that our EU committee has done well to examine the question of subsidiarity and to bring it to the attention of the House. It is worth recalling that subsidiarity did not feature in the original Treaty of Rome, but as the role of the Union developed, the member states decided that in cases of shared competence, a treaty provision was needed to police the division between legislative action by the Union and action by member states themselves. It is now a treaty requirement that in matters of shared competence, the EU can act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposal cannot be sufficiently achieved by the member states. In the current state of public opinion, not only in the UK but also across the Union as a whole, it is important that the EU institutions should strictly respect this treaty requirement.
In addition, as a result of the Lisbon treaty this Parliament—under Article 5(3) of the Treaty on European Union and under Article 6 of the protocol, which has treaty force, on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality—can submit a reasoned opinion on Commission proposals to the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission. We are recommended to do so in this case and I agree that we should now make use of this provision.
There has been perhaps some exaggeration about the volume of our secondary legislation deriving from the EU. The figures that I looked at recently in the Library of this House show that the great majority of statutory instruments are of UK origin and that only a small number directly implement EU law. However, every EU legislative proposal which in our view does not comply with subsidiarity should be challenged. In the case before us today, the history, as other noble Lords have already said, is that from 1987 some excess intervention stocks of food were made available to deprived persons in the Union. In the circumstances of 23 years ago, that was sensible, and I am strengthened in my opinion by the fact that I was in the Commission at the time. That gives me a further reason for thinking that it was a good idea, as well as the advantages given to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, in his role as Father Christmas at some stage.
However, radical reform of the common agricultural policy, which now bears little resemblance to the policy of the past, has removed almost all intervention stocks, and the welfare programme has turned to the market to buy food. The EU committee sees no compelling argument to conclude that the Union is better placed than member states to ensure a food supply to its most deprived citizens, if that is necessary, and accordingly considers that the proposal does not comply with the treaty requirement on subsidiarity. I support the view of the committee and, consequently, the two Motions tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Roper.
My Lords, like others, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Roper, and my noble friend Lord Carter of Coles for the work of the European Union Committee on this issue, and for the way that the subject has been introduced to the House. The noble Lord, Lord Roper, reminded us of some of the background considerations to the procedure that we will be adopting today, which are very much in line with the debate held last week on subsidiarity issues as a result of the committee’s report. It was the first time that this kind of procedure had been presented to the House. Furthermore, while the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and I often do not agree on European issues, I agree strongly that these provisions in the treaty are ones that should be used by national Parliaments. They were included to strengthen the role of national Parliaments in European scrutiny, so it is right that when either House of our Parliament feels that these issues are important, they should be fully aired and voted upon. Certainly, our own House of Lords committee has a very good reputation among national Parliaments throughout the EU for its scrutiny work. That is of long standing, as those of us who in the past were Members in another place or Ministers can testify.
Some of the considerations surrounding subsidiarity have been aired. It is felt it should come into play where legislation at EU level is unnecessary—although obviously the word “unnecessary” can be subject to different interpretations—where such activity can be promoted without following a legislative route and where it is better done by member states. As the Government put it in their Explanatory Memorandum,
“the EU should only act where there are clear additional benefits from collective efforts, or ‘EU added-value’, compared with action by individual Member States either individually or in co-operation”.
I believe therefore that the report makes a strong case. It is right to stress, as the noble Lord, Lord Roper, did, that the scheme is voluntary and that the United Kingdom has not participated in it since the mid-1990s. None the less, although we have not participated, as EU members we are fully entitled to make use of the provisions that are available today in making our views loudly heard about this.
I also accept the case in the report that confusion can arise from the parallel operation in a member state of a national scheme and an EU scheme. I also agree strongly that the extent to which purchasers from the market contribute to the objectives of the common agricultural policy in the way that is pursued at present is questionable.
When I first saw the committee’s report I was quite startled because, like others, I remember the circumstances in which this measure came into being. Like the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, I was also a Member of the European Parliament—indeed I was a member of the agriculture committee in 1987 when this issue first arose. I remember the senior role that the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, had in the European Commission at that time. As many noble Lords have pointed out, the circumstances then were very different from those of today. It was basically a measure to distribute high intervention stocks rather than purchasing food from the open market in the way that it has increasingly operated in recent years and seems likely to operate in the future.
I also accept the Government’s point that there are a lot of bureaucratic procedures involved in this process. It might be interesting if the Minister can say a little more about the costs of the scheme to those who choose to operate it and why that can be a disincentive to countries adopting the scheme in the way that it is currently provided.
I am glad that this debate is much more timely than last week’s debate. Because of the parliamentary Recess, the previous measure relied on the good will of the Commission to accept our view on subsidiarity. That is not a problem with this case, where we are in good time. I understand that, according to the Government, a final decision may not be taken until towards the end of next year. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that.
I agree that national Governments and also local and regional authorities are far more appropriate to deal with this kind of issue. I was glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, mentioned the north-east network in my own part of the country.
I hope that from what I have said so far it is clear that we support the work of the European Committee and support the Motions in front of us. The committee’s work is in line with the previous Government’s approach to this issue; there has been quite a history of consistency about this in the consideration in both Houses of Parliament in recent years. However, the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee, which has also recently considered this subject, has injected one slightly different element into the discussion. This is perhaps worth raising here and asking the Minister to comment.
The European Scrutiny Committee in the other place comments that in its view the argument is more about competence than subsidiarity. The committee accepted that where intervention stocks are relied on for food aid the Commission is competent to act, because of the workings of the common agricultural policy, but where the food is sourced from the open market—as we have heard, that is increasingly the case—the link with the common agricultural policy is much more tenuous. Therefore there does not seem to be an appropriate legal base which would confer competence to act. This is an important point and it would be useful to get the Minister to comment on it. As I understand it, the Government have so far said that there may be an issue of competence, but that even if it was then ruled that it came within the Commission’s competence under the rules, there would still be an issue of subsidiarity. In that case, of course, the Government would strongly endorse the view of the European Union Committee in this House.
Could the Minister also say a little more, as other Members have encouraged him to do, about the support that we might receive from other countries in this area? In the letter that the Minister recently sent to the chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, he talked about a small number of countries but certainly more than one—even though only one country has been mentioned here today. It would be useful for the House to be able to consider any further details that the Minister has about that. It would also be useful to know when the opinions of the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions of the European Union will be received and considered.
I noted that the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, saw at least part of the problem in a kind of grab for power and territory by the Commission. That might well be the case; however, the Commission makes the point in its Explanatory Memorandum that, as recently as 2008, 13 million people in the European Union apparently benefited from this scheme. Perhaps it would be interesting for the House to know where the majority of those people are. Is it in the new countries—the cohesion countries? Certainly, it seems that certain organisations and populations in the European Union were putting pressure on the Commission to continue this scheme, so perhaps it is slightly unfair to say, “It is just the Commission wanting to extend its territory”, although that may be an element in the equation. Also, has there been any pressure from charities in this country to participate, despite the consensus that seems to prevail that it is actually better to deliver such programmes nationally or even sub-nationally?
Finally, the Government make a strong case about this being a social measure and therefore not appropriate to the European Union. While I accept that argument on this occasion, I am sure that the Minister will not be surprised that I do not accept that all social measures are inappropriate at EU level. Indeed, to go back to the European Coal and Steel Community treaty of 1954, social measures were quite an important element in the help to the coal and steel community and to coal and steel-producing areas, so that actually has a long history within the European Union.
I note that, later on, the House will be looking at the European Social Fund after an excellent report that was also from the European Union Committee, so although our support for the Government’s stance on this occasion is genuine I hope that the Liberal Democrats in the coalition, despite the reservations about particular directives from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, will none the less keep the pressure on the Government not to have such total hostility toward anything with a “social label” in the European Union. However, on this occasion, as happened last week, it is obvious that there is widespread consensus in the House and we are therefore happy to support both the work of the European Union Committee and its conclusions on this matter.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in saying how grateful I am to both the noble Lord, Lord Roper, as chairman of the EU Committee and to the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, as chairman of Sub-Committee D, for this report. I make it quite clear at once, as I think our Explanatory Memorandum made it clear, that the Government share the committee’s concern that the regulation concerned is not consistent with the subsidiarity principle. That means that much of what I say may repeat what other noble Lords have said this afternoon, because there has been general agreement around the Chamber. Still, it is important that it is on the record that these are the views of Her Majesty’s Government.
As the noble Lord, Lord Roper, made clear, the then European Community’s food distribution programme was introduced back in 1987 and its main aim was to help run down the stockpiles of basic commodities that had been purchased into intervention stores under the common agricultural policy. The noble Lord, Lord Roper, went on to stress that it was the stocks of butter, milk powder, beef, sugar, rice, all those mountains and lakes that we remember—I cannot remember whether it covered wine lakes, but it did cover a whole variety of mountains and lakes—that were released to charitable organisations in participating member states annually to distribute to poorer sections of the community.
As has been made clear by a number of noble Lords, we in the United Kingdom last participated in the scheme in 1998—everyone referred just to the mid-1990s, but I can give the precise date. We withdrew both because of the sharp decline in intervention stocks in this country and because of the high administrative overheads, for government and charitable organisations alike, which made participation unattractive. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, that we still believe that, under the scheme that is being looked at at the moment, there would still be high administrative burdens, which would make it unattractive. I also assure her that we are not aware of any charitable organisations having asked us to participate in this scheme, or, for that matter, to go back into the scheme after the withdrawal by the previous Administration back in 1998.
The main purpose of intervention systems, as my noble friend Lord Caithness and other noble Lords made clear, is to support market prices. However, a side-effect—in practice, it turns out to be the dominant effect—is to encourage overproduction and distract farmers from making market-based production decisions. Successive reforms of the CAP have reduced the role of intervention and, together with improvements in world commodity markets, have resulted in significantly reduced EU intervention stocks. Consequently, the Commission proposes to adapt the scheme.
The main stated purposes of the Commission’s proposals are to align the legislation to the Lisbon treaty and to modernise the scheme. The CAP is now more market-orientated and price support will play less of a role in future, so, as I have said, the accumulation of large intervention stocks is less likely. The proposal therefore provides for CAP funds to be used to purchase goods on the open market and for a wider range of goods to be purchased by participating member states on the basis of nutritional criteria rather than limiting them to the products for which intervention applies. The other major change is the proposed introduction to the scheme of cofinancing by participating member states. Under current proposals, this will be a minimum of 25 per cent of the eligible costs, with lower ranges of cofinancing, such as 10 per cent, applying to more disadvantaged areas of the European Community.
As before, participation in the new scheme—I think the noble Lord, Lord Roper, made this clear—will remain voluntary, so that, even if it goes ahead, the United Kingdom will not be obliged to participate. Providing effective help to disadvantaged people is clearly an important objective, but, as the Explanatory Memorandum explains, we remain unconvinced of the merits or the appropriateness of the proposal. In particular, we believe that the expansion of the scheme to procuring goods on the open market will mean that the new scheme is essentially a social measure—that is an assurance I can give to my noble friend Lord Caithness—which, by its design, would make it a matter for member states to decide rather than for the EU itself.
In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, a longstanding element of European treaties that is currently enshrined in Article 5 of the treaty on the European Union, the Government consider that the EU should act collectively only where there are clear additional benefits, or EU added value, compared with action by member states either individually or in co-operation.
We consider that social matters are a matter for individual member states, and that measures to assist the neediest members of society are more properly and efficiently delivered through domestic social programmes that take account of the prevailing situation and available funding in individual countries. The noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, for example, mentioned a scheme, Healthy Start, which is run by the Department of Health. I assure him that that scheme is still there; it is under review by the department and subject to a consultation about various changes in it.
I would like to mention national charitable organisations, such as FairShare. I visited one example of its outlets in the north-east, not far from the former constituency of the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. Many noble Lords will know of the valuable work that bodies such as FairShare can do in distributing food to the less advantaged. To return to the north-east, I was grateful for what the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said about the north-east food action programme. It is those kinds of measures—national from the Government, from local government and from charities—that we believe we should be looking to work. I commend those bodies to those who do not know about the sort of work that they do.
The proposal itself was discussed in the Agriculture and Fisheries Council on 27 September. That was followed, as I understand it, by technical consideration by officials. A number of policy and technical issues have been identified. At present—I give this assurance to my noble friend Lord Caithness—there is no qualified majority in favour of it. There might be a blocking minority against, but certainly I assure him that no member state at the moment actually supports the scheme; some oppose it for one reason, some for another. Also, as I understand it, the European Parliament has not yet given its opinion on the proposal.
The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, asked about the timescale. I assure her that we still have quite a long way to go before we get to any final decision, what with the European Parliament having to consider it and some sort of qualified majority having to be found on the Council, which does not seem likely.
In addition to subsidiarity, there are two main concerns among those member states. First there is the legal base.
I thought that the proposal reflected some of the amendments that had been passed in the European Parliament, so I am somewhat puzzled that the Minister says that the European Parliament has not considered it.
As I understand it, the European Parliament has not yet considered the stage that we are currently at. It might be that it considered earlier examples of it. At the moment we are at the stage where it has been through the Agriculture and Fisheries Council, which talked in September about co-financing at the 25 per cent or 10 per cent level, but that has not yet gone on to the European Parliament. If I am wrong, I will write to the noble Baroness to correct it. My point is that we still have quite a way to go before any of this gets through, which is why it is important that the views of this House and another place—and those of 26 other parliaments and all the Houses in them, should they wish, although we understand that only Sweden is likely to do this at the moment—should come forward so that we can reach various red lights, green lights or whatever, as appropriate.
I return to the concerns of the member states. First, I was talking about the legal basis. The new proposal is made under Articles 42 and 43(2) of the treaty on the functioning of the EU. This is similar to the existing scheme. These articles would be appropriate if the predominant purpose of the scheme was the supply of food from intervention. However, given the expected focus of the revised scheme on the purchase of goods on the open market, it is very difficult to argue that its predominant purpose is in line with the use of these articles as the legal base. A number of member states share our concern about that.
Secondly, the concept of cofinancing, which I referred to earlier, is strongly opposed by a number of currently participating member states that believe that the scheme, quite naturally, should be wholly community-financed. The Government believe that, were the revised scheme to go ahead, cofinancing would be very important to ensure that each participating member state reaches an informed judgment on how best to support its deprived communities, and because it would likely improve the governance of the scheme.
In conclusion, I emphasise that Her Majesty’s Government have not taken part in the existing voluntary scheme for many years and have no intention of taking part in the revised scheme if it were adopted. Given that there is presently no qualified majority on paper in the Council, there seems little immediate prospect of the proposal—at least in its current form—progressing that far. The effect would be that the existing scheme would continue to operate. I understand that there is a challenge before the European Court of Justice on whether the legal base for the operation of the 2009 programme is appropriate. That has yet to be heard. The point remains that it is not an activity that is best undertaken at EU level or, in our view, an appropriate use of common agricultural policy funds. Therefore, I stress that I welcome the committee’s report and support the Motion on the reasoned opinion.
My Lords, I can be rather brief in replying because all those who have taken part in this debate have supported the report and the Motion that I have moved. I was particularly glad to hear from the three members of the sub-committee, their chairman the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, who were able to add on the general question. In the case of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, we were reinforced with her knowledge of local social projects. We were also very much helped by the fact that three Members of this House had been involved in the scheme at earlier stages. Therefore, the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, with his fascinating aperçu of acting as Father Christmas, and of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, were particularly useful in giving us the background to the scheme. I was glad to have the support on this occasion of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. I hope he notes that this is one of the benefits of the Lisbon treaty that, as well as other sections, should be taken into account.
I was asked a couple of questions. Before coming to them, one thing that has not been stressed sufficiently is that, although we do not participate in the scheme, the UK contributes to the €500 million that comes from the European Community’s budget. Therefore, that should not be overlooked when we consider this matter.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, asked me whether the arrangements were satisfactory. The procedure in this House has been satisfactory. We have been found a date relatively promptly so that it can be debated in good time. I will say one thing that I did not mention initially. On this occasion, we consulted our colleagues in the committees of the devolved Assemblies and asked them whether they had any comments, because some of this is the responsibility of the devolved Governments. We have not had a response on this occasion, perhaps because of a shortage of time, but it shows that we feel that we have that responsibility in matters that are not a reserved responsibility for the UK Parliament.
On the consideration in other parliaments, we have communicated with them. In the 19 countries that are participating, people may not wish to upset a continuing Father Christmas role for their countries and might consider themselves rather unpopular if they were to raise issues of subsidiarity on something that might be seen locally as beneficial. I do not know. However, I believe that we were right—as has been shown by this debate—to put forward our reasoned opinion on this particular measure. I beg to move.