Examination of witnesses (Questions 60-79)
WEDNESDAY 13 DECEMBER 2000
MP AND MR
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
(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
agreementto use an ugly CAP wordof 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.
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
(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.
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 produceyou have heard this
beforerevised 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.
67. Could we turn to supermarkets?
(Mr Meacher) Gladly.
Mrs Dunwoody: He is not embarrassed about supermarkets.
68. Why did the White Paper not propose any
measures to require supermarketsnot encourage but require
supermarketsto 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
encouragingwhich I know is not the word you usedsupermarkets
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
(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
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.
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
(Mr Meacher) Because some local authoritiesand
we are thinking not just about rural areas, we are thinking about
Westminster and Chelsea, for examplewould 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.
76. How many shops will benefit from rate relief?
(Mr Meacher) From the increased rate relief?
(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