Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 60-79)

WEDNESDAY 13 DECEMBER 2000

RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, MP AND MR HENRY CLEARY

Miss McIntosh

  60.—is to have a tranche of CAP reform which is going to have to happen before enlargement. When does the Government envisage that the next round of CAP reform will take place?
  (Mr Meacher) Agenda 2000 was the proposals for major CAP reform which, again, you will know well, the Government was very disappointed with. We did not get the depth or extent of change in CAP subsidies that we wanted. There was virtually no agreement—to use an ugly CAP word—of degressivity on production subsidies. We want to return to this issue as soon as we can. I repeat, we are only now past what was intended to be a major change of direction. It fizzled out and there were rather little changes, for the very simple reason that some of the big countries, like France and Germany as well as several of the smaller ones, were adamant that they were not prepared to change. I think the UK and Sweden have been in the lead on this, we will continue to be in the lead. It is a bipartisan policy also within the UK. We need further and massive change in the CAP and we will return to this as soon as we can.

Mr Olner

  61. You mentioned the multitude of schemes for assistance to farmers and what have you in reply to Miss McIntosh's question. One of the difficulties is getting farmers to understand all of those, which is the scheme they may get help and assistance on. In your mind, is there a differentiation between the big farmer and the small farmer? The big farmers are well managed, they know where all the pots of money are but very often the small farmers do not.
  (Mr Meacher) That is perfectly true. My colleague here, Henry Cleary, did indicate the sources of information and those are new and important. It is true that, for example, we are consulting on relief on further rural diversification grants. Making sure that small farmers get information about that is crucial. It is difficult to ensure unless MAFF is prepared to send out the details to every farmer on their books and that is an expensive and time-consuming bureaucratic exercise. It is very important that we communicate to the smallest farmers, you are quite right.

Chairman

  62. I am worried about the time, so some fairly short answers, please. The Haskins Report, Environmental Regulation and Farmers, you put that in the wastepaper bin, did you not?
  (Mr Meacher) I am sorry, what is the question?

  63. The Haskins Report you have put in the wastepaper bin, have you not?
  (Mr Meacher) When can we get a response?

  64. No, you have put in the wastepaper bin.
  (Mr Meacher) Oh, I am sorry. Absolutely not. We shall be responding to this formally next month, I think I can make a commitment on that. We have already raised the question of pesticides and there was also a question of hedgerows but there were other recommendations. We regard it as a useful, important report which made clear that contrary to the views of many there is not gold plating of environmental regulation, there are good reasons behind environmental regulation, but if it can be reduced while still achieving the effective purpose it will be.

  65. So you have not put the report in the wastepaper bin, he has persuaded you to put your proposals on hedgerows in the wastepaper bin?
  (Mr Meacher) No, he certainly has not. The position, briefly, on hedgerows is that I came in—

  66. You promised this Committee two years ago that there would be some urgent action on hedgerows.
  (Mr Meacher) You are quite right, and I am embarrassed by the delay, let me put that on the record. I did say soon after coming into office that the hedgerow regulations which we inherited from the last government were wholly inadequate in my view and that we would review them. We did review them, particularly in two respects: one, the notification period which was previously 28 days before action could be taken that we thought too short; secondly, as to what was meant by an important hedgerow, one that merited being preserved. There has been, and this is a major reason for the delay, not surprisingly, a substantial difference of view between the farming community and the conservation community and the NGOs as to what is an important hedgerow, in particular as to how to handle the whole concept of landscape. I think we have now resolved that. There was the proposal which Haskins was recommending that there should be discretion to local authorities about handling this, but on the basis of an increasing number of hedges to be covered. There has been one further element in this issue which is the Countryside Survey 2000 which I published a couple of weeks ago. We are having a further look at the criteria in the light of that latest information which it has taken years to collect. I repeat that I am very keen to produce—you have heard this before—revised hedgerow regulations and I think I should say it is still probably a few months away but it will be in the first half of next year, whether or not before an election, if one were to occur.

Mr Benn

  67. Could we turn to supermarkets?
  (Mr Meacher) Gladly.

  Mrs Dunwoody: He is not embarrassed about supermarkets.

Mr Benn

  68. Why did the White Paper not propose any measures to require supermarkets—not encourage but require supermarkets—to take local sourcing of products more seriously?
  (Mr Meacher) This is a fundamental political question. There is a question how far Government should intervene in the operation of the market. After all, if local people are using a supermarket and they believe there is benefit to them from using a supermarket on the basis of which it runs, one has to be on very sure ground to try to reduce that. The question you have asked is slightly different, which is about local sourcing. We are trying to achieve that. The Ministry of Agriculture and the organisation called Food for Britain, I think it is called, are encouraging—which I know is not the word you used—supermarkets to introduce regional sourcing. We do say something about this in chapter eight of the Rural White Paper which is about local sourcing, it is about help for small abattoirs, which has not been mentioned this year, and improved marketing for local produce. The question is whether you should require it, whether that is an intervention in the normal operation of the market which goes too far. You have to ask the question whether the local produce that you want is available locally, and whether that can be determined by regulation is difficult.

  69. Clearly there are environmental consequences to food buyers, which is partly what we are talking about here. Why do you not consider giving local authorities the power to make that a requirement of granting planning permission, subject clearly to negotiation with developers about precisely what that might mean in a particular context? In other words, it would not be a national requirement, it would be a permission for a local authority to take that on board in deciding whether to give planning permission.
  (Mr Meacher) Presumably the planning permission would be that as far as practicable the requirement would be that the supermarket should source locally, subject to the range of produce you wish to sell and the availability of that produce whatever is meant by locally, within a certain distance. That is, of course, still open to any local authority to do. It is really a matter for local authorities to determine. Whether Government should by dictat set that down centrally is more questionable. We are keen to see this happen. Certainly we would support local authorities which use their powers to secure that objective. There has been a reference to the Competition Commission about supermarkets taking advantage of suppliers and small rural retailers and, again, the Competition Commission has proposed a Code of Practice which is binding on supermarkets, which goes some way, I think, in your direction.

  70. If one takes the specific example of apples, one can go into a lot of supermarkets and I am sure Members can recite a number of brands that are likely to be found: Cox, Gala, Braeburn, Granny Smith and Golden Delicious, which is a bit of a misnomer as in my experience it is neither golden nor particularly tasty. If one takes that as a practical example, one can have a very wide range of apple varieties but actually a minute proportion gets through to consumers. Is that not a practical area where if you happen to be a supermarket within, I do not know, Kent, there would be a case for the local authority saying only local produce where it can be achieved?
  (Mr Meacher) I think there is a case for that. Of course, we are talking about new approvals. I am perfectly happy to consider that further. As I say, there is nothing to stop local authorities doing that already, the question is whether Central Government should prompt them to use their powers more than they are already entitled to do.

Chairman

  71. Tourist tax, what is happening about it?
  (Mr Meacher) There has been a proposal about a voluntary tourism charge or payback scheme in order to enable hotels, guesthouses and other tourism development businesses to receive payment for the purposes of conserving the environment on which, indeed, their business depends. We are in favour of that, we would like to see it expanded. If one is talking about a tax, those who are in the tourism business are opposed, even though it could work to their gain, because they think it could have a competitive disadvantage to tourism in this country and I think we have to take account of their views.

  72. But tourists do cost quite a lot of money to rural areas, do they not?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes, that is indeed the justification for imposing some charge and in encouraging it, but it is a question as to whether one, again, should require it as mandatory.

  73. You just want it as voluntary?
  (Mr Meacher) We believe that is the best way of getting the balance between a charge being put in place in many cases without disadvantaging the industry, which would be cutting off our nose to spite our face.

  74. Council Tax on second homes, this is put off until after the election, is that it?
  (Mr Meacher) No, it is not put off until after the election, whenever that might be. The intention is to move as quickly as we can on several items within the Rural White Paper. As I say, we shall publish an implementation plan early in the new year. It does require primary legislation to do this and, therefore, it does require a parliamentary slot. If it is possible to get one in this next year we will proceed. We are not dragging our feet in any way at all.

  75. Why are you leaving discretion for local authorities?
  (Mr Meacher) Because some local authorities—and we are thinking not just about rural areas, we are thinking about Westminster and Chelsea, for example—would choose not to exercise that. Therefore, it is an issue which goes rather wider than rural regeneration. We are motivated also by the precedent which already exists in Wales, where the option was given to local authorities and all but two took it up. Again, we think it better that it can be done on the basis of local discretion rather than enforced from above.

Mrs Ellman

  76. How many shops will benefit from rate relief?
  (Mr Meacher) From the increased rate relief?

  77. Yes.
  (Mr Meacher) The existing rules were that there was 50 per cent mandatory relief in respect of a sole shop or post office in a settlement with a population under 3,000. We have now increased the threshold for mandatory relief from 5,000 to 6,000 and for discretionary relief from 10,000 to 12,000. That is in line with the revaluation of all non-domestic properties. We are now consulting about extending it to food shops, to garages and to pubs. That again will require primary legislation. When you say what is the extra number, I cannot give an immediate figure.
  (Mr Cleary) It is likely to be several thousand. It depends on precisely where you set the limits. If we think in terms of the number of settlements of that size, each of them may have one or two extra food shops that will benefit, some of them may have the garage, many of them will have perhaps one or two pubs. It is in the order of thousands. We cannot be precise until we have actually got a specific proposal following consultation.

  78. Is there going to be an assessment of the viability of those shops? How many of them would be viable even with the rate relief you are thinking about?
  (Mr Meacher) If currently they are operating viable entities then we would not do an analysis of their long-term commercial viabilities. As I say, if they are operating at the present moment commercially, as long as they fall within the parameters, we would regard that as justification for extending the relief.

  79. Do you have any proposals on encouraging local people to use local shops?
  (Mr Meacher) We hope that the whole thrust of the White Paper is going to lead to increased economic viability in these small settlements and in market towns. It is not through any single measure but it is the collection of measures in terms of more homes, better transport links, improved amenities, use of post offices as access to Government services. It is the combined effect of all of these that I think will increase the viability of these areas and, hence, automatically the use of these basic services.


 
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