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House of Commons

Thursday 21 December 2000

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill (By Order)

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Thursday 11 January 2001.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Minister was asked--

EU Sugar Regime

1. Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): If he will make a statement on the reform of the EU sugar regime. [142335]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): The compliments of the season to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House. I shall now move on to the ingredients for the traditional fare.

The present EU sugar regime is unsustainable and reform is long overdue. It requires consumers to pay two and a half times the world price for sugar, and acts as a barrier to imports from third countries other than on specially negotiated conditions.

The Commission has made proposals which would begin the process of reform, and has also proposed opening up access to the European Union market for sugar from the least-developed countries. At this week's Agriculture Council, I argued for a coherent and orderly reform of the sugar regime, which would take into account the interests of the EU industry, but also the EU's obligations to the very poorest countries. Negotiations will continue under the Swedish presidency.

Dr. Jones: As my right hon. Friend says, the failure to reform the common agricultural policy on sugar means that consumers and manufacturers, such as Cadbury in my constituency, are paying two to three times world prices for sugar at the same time as we are denying the poorest countries access to our markets. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the EU sugar regime will not prevent the

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everything but arms proposal from succeeding and that the reform will not set developing countries against one another?

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is on to a good point. At the Council of Ministers, I argued strongly in favour of reforming the sugar regime but, like other Ministers, I drew attention to the everything but arms proposal. It seems to me that the two proposals must be taken in parallel and that market access should be accompanied by reform of the European Union regime.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): What exactly does the Minister mean by that response? What exactly is he saying in the Council of Ministers about the inclusion of sugar in the everything but arms proposal? All the letters that I have received from the Government suggest that they remain wedded to the inclusion of sugar, which will have severe consequences for British sugar farmers, for the British sugar manufacturing industry and, of course, for the African, Caribbean and Pacific sugar- producing countries.

Mr. Brown: The proposal is intended to provide market access for the poorest countries in the world. The hon. Gentleman overstates the dangers, although I accept that the EU industry perceives them to be real enough. The quantities involved are relatively small and there are safeguards in the proposal. The Commission is the custodian of the safeguards. Irrespective of whether the everything but arms proposal has an impact on the European Union market, the case for reforming the sugar regime is blindingly obvious.

There is nothing new in the proposals. I have with me two pages of quotes from Conservative Ministers arguing for reform. Way back in 1995, the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) told the House:

I have to say that he did not achieve it.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): Does my right hon. Friend agree that throughout the country there is broad support for giving access to the least-developed countries and some of the poorest people in the world, and for not allowing that progress to be held up by the selfish interests of small groups of producers?

Mr. Brown: I agree with my hon. Friend, but the two proposals should be taken forward in parallel. We should accord the poorest countries in the world access to European Union markets, but the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) is right that it could conceivably impact on the EU's own regime, and it is clear that we should take reform of that regime forward in parallel.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): Judging from ministerial responses in a recent European Scrutiny Committee, is the Minister not a little embarrassed that he still cannot say if and when the EBA initiative will begin? Is that not woefully inadequate, given that the first 20 per cent. tariff cut is due on 1 January 2001? Consultation has been almost non-existent and impact assessments will be shown to be worthless.

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When will the Government start to stand up for British interests and seek to halt this over-hasty policy, which will cripple the sugar industry of both the United Kingdom and the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries?

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman is dramatically overstating the case. I was standing up for British interests at the Council of Ministers on Tuesday. It is in the clear interests of consumers and taxpayers in this country that we reform the sugar regime, and there is nothing new in that. Back in March 1990, the then Parliamentary Secretary, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), said:

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Conservative party has changed its mind? I thought that Conservatives believed in markets.

Farm Diversification

2. Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley): What steps the Government are taking to encourage farmers to take up options for farm diversification available under the England rural development programme. [142336]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): We have publicised the England rural development programme extensively, including writing to all farmers, placing articles and advertisements in the press and attending local farmers meetings. In addition, free planning advice is available to farmers wishing to pursue projects under the rural enterprise scheme; we will publish a free guide to farm diversification over the next few weeks; and the Government are consulting on proposals to provide time-limited rate relief for farmers wishing to diversify into non-farming activities.

Mr. Michie: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. While it is welcome that rural communities and farmers are getting help and consideration, there are many rumours that a lot of open space, good farmland and green belt could be used for other purposes, which will close access and, of course, change the whole character of such areas. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that that is not the case and that the claims being made are exaggerated?

Mr. Morley: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. He makes an important point about the pressure on greenbelt and greenfield land, but many farm buildings and sites lend themselves to a variety of conversions for various businesses and for diversification. We want to help farmers to do that--and, of course, we are not talking about cutting through the planning law. Issues such as vehicular access, noise and smells will all be taken into account by local planning authorities, but we want to make it clear that just because a building is a farm or part of a farm development, it does not mean that it cannot be developed into all sorts of different businesses that are good for farmers and the rural economy.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Does the Minister acknowledge that the farmer's share of the capital

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development necessary for diversification depends on an adequate level of profitability on that farm? Given the present disastrous situation for farm incomes and the modulation of European agricultural payments, is not there a real risk that the good intentions of the plan may be frustrated?

Mr. Morley: It is certainly true that farmers' incomes have been under pressure in recent years. No one denies that, but the measures are designed to help farmers to extend, develop and adapt their own businesses. Many farmers have taken up those opportunities. MAFF is encouraging the creation of demonstration farms so that people can see what can be achieved and how they can diversify their businesses.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Does my hon. Friend agree that many of those who farm in the Pennine chain do so in extremely difficult farming conditions, where there are few options to diversify, yet if they are to maintain the potential for tourism and other attractions in that area we want to ensure that those farms maintain the present balance with nature and, therefore, we need to ensure that they can survive economically?

Mr. Morley: I agree with my hon. Friend. We provide extensive financial support for upland farming because we recognise that it brings social and environmental benefits to our uplands, and grazing in the uplands is needed as part of environmental management.

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