Pig Industry Restructuring (Capital Grant) Scheme 2001

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Mr. Paice: The Minister has clarified the matter, but the fact remains that 11 months ago the Government announced that £26 million would be available this year for the restructuring scheme. I represent a constituency in East Anglia and fully understand the impact of swine fever on many farms in the area, and the need for the Government to react. However, I expect that the information that the Minister has provided—I welcome the fact that she has given it—will be a huge shock to the rest of the industry, which was under the impression that the £26 million remained intact for the restructuring scheme.

Although the Minister nods her head, when I challenged the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the House at the last Agriculture questions before Christmas, he gave the clear impression that that money was intact and that he would be attempting to have it rolled over; otherwise it would be lost. If he had been more open then, the shock that I am sure will be felt in the industry would have been allayed.

Ms Quin: I must contradict the hon. Gentleman. The information that I have given is not new or a shock to the industry. It is the information that my right hon. Friend the Minister gave and on which we have been working with our industry contacts. In effect, a year was lost before the scheme began. We were hoping to get clearance much more quickly. The sum was at risk of being lost; the hon. Gentleman knows that we would have had to discuss the rollover with the Treasury and he will remember from his time in office that it would be unprecedented for all that money to have been rolled over.

At the last oral questions in the House, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture said in response to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire that the £66 million will be used for the benefit of the pig industry. I have not ruled out further funds being made available to support the pig industry beyond that time. Indeed, I referred to that in response to the hon. Member for North Cornwall. However, because those decisions were not taken in the context of the next CSR settlement, I cannot put an absolute figure on it. Nevertheless, we are committed to take it forward.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome thought that might be difficult to approve all applications. When deciding in future which areas should receive funds we shall take account of our experience of implementing this scheme, because, following discussions with the industry, a shift of priorities may well be necessary.

Mr. David Heath: I understand the Minister's difficulty in battling with the Treasury, and I accept the point that she is making. I think that there may be some sort of close ending to the amount of money available to the pig industry, irrespective of the circumstances that may prevail in the coming financial year. Will the Minister go one step further? She said that she would review the operation of the scheme and that further funding may be available if it proves necessary. Will she also make it clear that if unforeseen circumstances or new zoonoses afflict the industry, it will not be expected with such a limited budget to deal with the cost of slaughter or other associated costs, but that the Ministry will deal with the circumstances on their merits and will go to the Treasury or use internal Ministry resources to deal with it. I want to be sure that the pig industry's subsidy is not close-ended by the procedure.

Ms Quin: The aim is to do what we set out to do, which is to have a funded scheme that helps the future of the pig industry and recognises the outgoers and the ongoers elements. That is a commitment to the pig industry. I stress that the help given to those producers who were affected by classical swine fever was an unprecedented system of support. The hon. Member for Stone, who mentioned figures much larger than £66 million, might still argue that that is not enough, but it is a response to the industry's problems. It was important that we made a response, although we were not under an obligation to do so.

Mr. Cash: The question that has not quite been answered—the Minister may be coming to it soon—is how much money has been conceded under the European Commission rules, because we had to go to the Commission to ask whether state aid of that quantity and quality could be paid. My first question is what did the Government ask for and how much did they come back with? The second question—as yet, it is unanswered—is to what extent can a fair and reasonable comparison be made between the amount of money per head of population for pig producers in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the European Union? By that I mean each of the countries, including the applicant countries. The Minister obviously cannot be expected to go through those statistical details this afternoon, but I place my question on the record as I would like those answers in writing.

Ms Quin: I might be forced to appeal to you, Mr. Olner, for support. Some of those questions go far beyond the narrow order that is before the Committee. For the hon. Gentleman to ask me details of payments made by applicant countries who are not even members of the European Union is the widest question that could be asked.

Mr. Cash: I wish briefly—

The Chairman: Order. I warn the hon. Gentleman that he must be brief.

Mr. Cash: Indeed, Mr. Olner. We have an important meeting at 6 pm, so I am conscious of the time.

The applicant countries are relevant. I do not want to labour the point, but many people realise that however important enlargement is, the reality is that allocations and budget are being calculated with a view to what will happen—in Poland and other countries. I do not want to make a meal of it; it want answers to my questions. If the Minister cannot give them now, she can give them later.

Ms Quin: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not manage to catch the Speaker's eye in various recent agricultural debates on the Floor of the House. That would have been a far more relevant way to raise such matters than in a Committee dealing with such a narrow order.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall, too, was trying to invite me to pursue various avenues that are probably better raised elsewhere, such as the whole question of labelling. It is extremely important, but it would take me some time to outline the initiatives that the Government have taken, particularly with pork labelling, in order to answer his questions about the difficulties of misleading labelling. It is hard to see what relevance misleading labelling has to an order about capital support for ongoers.

Mr. Tyler rose—

The Chairman: Order. I hope that the intervention is about the order.

Mr. Tyler: I wanted to refer to the order. I am looking particularly at the provision for eligible persons. The Minister will recall that I said that an organisation of pig producers might have a capital scheme that extended into the marketing field. That query relates directly to that part of the order.

Ms Quin: I accept that. Applications for aid under the scheme will obviously be considered for the overall viability of the business. It would be a more obvious route for pig producers to look for support under the England rural development programme because it is more specifically related to their problems.

The Government feel strongly that those sectors that have not received much support from the European Union should be able to access support via the rural development programme. It is an important aspect, because it means that the pig industry, the horticultural industry and others would be able to access support that previously they had been denied. Indeed, taking up the point raised by the hon. Member for Stone, not only has the pig industry not received financial support from the European Union; to receive financial support, it must get approval via the state aid route—a subject that several hon. Members have focused on this afternoon.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Uncharacteristically, I have not said anything today, although I know something about the industry as my father used to be a pig farmer.

Although my constituents will sympathise with their East Anglian counterparts, they will be shocked by the news that the scheme will not receive the sum that it would otherwise have done, because some money has been diverted to classical swine vasicular disease. It was important that the industry deal with that difficult problem, and it would have welcomed the money.

My constituents will want to know whether the money will be cash-limited. Presumably it will be, much more so than it otherwise would have been. Will the applications be treated on a ``first come, first served'' basis? What will happen if there is insufficient money in the scheme for the overall number of applicants? Will people be eligible to reapply next year when more money will be available?

Ms Quin: I do not feel that the hon. Gentleman listened to my earlier answers. At no point did I say that the scheme would be cut back. All I said was that, given that one of the years had been virtually lost under the three-year scheme, there would need to be a follow-up in the next comprehensive spending review round. I did not say that pig producers would be denied access to funds for such projects in future.

We have also opened up other funding opportunities to pig producers that did not exist before under the England rural development programme. I do not say that that is a substitute for another year of the scheme, but the hon. Gentleman's conclusions are unjustified. We do not seek to limit. I am simply explaining the spending round procedure and the difficulties incurred this year in not being able to spend any money until the last minute. There was a risk that the money would be lost to the industry altogether, but it has not been, due to our spending in conjunction with the industry.

 
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Prepared 13 February 2001