Olive Oil

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The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): Both hon. Members who have spoken have made very good points. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire was right to place his comments in the context of the common agricultural policy reform process. Our judgment about how to make progress with respect to the present regime will be made against the Government's overall objectives for CAP reform, which I believe all parties in the House of Commons support.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned production aid, and I share his frustration. However, I should point out that it is not open ended. It is subject to maximum guaranteed quantities, within which there are also national allocations for each of the olive oil producers concerned. As the hon. Gentleman will know, that is analogous to other regimes in the CAP, such as those for flax and hemp.

If the information being compiled to complete the geographic information system approach provides an accurate figure of olive trees and olive production across the European Union, that may be a useful tool for further reform of the regime. It would enable us to understand the dependence of particular areas on olive oil production and the needs of producers in those areas, and therefore how to decouple aid from production. Work on the GIS is extremely valuable in informing further reform decisions in the sector. Although the hon. Gentleman is right that at present it is related to production support, it may none the less be an important aspect of overall reform of the policy.

I share the frustrations of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). None the less, I repeat that the scandals referred to in the report have been at least partially addressed by the important reforms of consumption aid, to which he referred. I certainly did not mean to imply that the European food authority would have any anti-fraud responsibility in the financial sector, but it could examine where food safety had been compromised by activities in member states. Obviously, the authority could and should work in conjunction with the existing European institutions set up to combat fraud. I was simply saying that food safety issues would be for the European food authority to consider; I did not mean to convey the impression that it would have any role in the detection or prosecution of financial irregularity.

I am sure that the Committee is aware that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary recently led a general but detailed discussion of the European Union's anti-fraud measures and recent changes introduced to combat fraud in European Standing Committee B. That was an important debate that considered the increasing efforts of the Commission and member states to crack down on fraud, not only in the agricultural sector but throughout the range of European Union spending.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome correctly analysed the difficulty of moving reform forward in the sector because of the politics of the European Union. He mentioned the existence of a blocking minority; that is absolutely true. One frustration with the CAP has been the slow pace of reform because so many measures currently benefit a significant number of countries which can muster a blocking minority against change. That is part of the political climate in which we operate. That is why we must use some of the external pressures for change to which the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire referred, especially pressure from the World Trade Organisation and from the budgetary consequences of enlargement of the EU. Although enlargement was not specifically referred to in the debate, it is worth pointing out that the majority of entrants, and especially of countries that are likely to join in any first wave of accession, will not be olive oil producers, so the enlargement process may be helpful in achieving change to the system. Some candidates for accession produce olive oil, but the balance is in favour of those with a budgetary interest in ensuring control and proper spending in the sector.

It is important to move away from the traditional CAP approach on olive oil, as in other sectors. There is a good opportunity for that to happen if we can muster enough support in the Council of Ministers. It is interesting to consider the tables on consumption of olive oil in EU countries. There is increasing demand for olive oil. I do not believe that it is beyond our imagination to envisage a regime that would not need substantial amounts of public support and could thrive openly and competitively. The EU produces large quantities of high-quality olive oil, so it could supply the increasing number of consumers who want the product. Ultimately, that would be a far more sensible way in which to move forward than the system that has operated until now.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 9431/00, Special Report No. 11/2000 of the Court of Auditors on the support scheme for olive oil; and supports the Government's aim of pressing for further reform of the regime to reduce its costs, complexity and opportunities for fraud.

        Committee rose at twenty-six minutes past Eleven o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Winterton, Mr. Nicholas (Chairman)
Dean, Mrs.
Dobbin, Mr.
Foster, Mr. Michael Jabez
Gibson, Dr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):

Clelland, Mr. David (Tyne Bridge)
Heath, Mr. David (Somerton and Frome)
Howarth, Mr. Gerald (Aldershot)
Jenkins, Mr. Brian (Tamworth)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie (Bromsgrove)
Paice, Mr. James (South-East Cambridgeshire)
Quin, Ms Joyce (Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

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