Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 134)



  120. Are there any common themes coming through the submissions which you have received?
  (Sir Don Curry) Yes.

  121. I would be amazed if there were not.
  (Sir Don Curry) Yes, of course there are. We have not yet, however, produced an analysis of all those returns because we are only just beginning to conclude that written submission process. We are using an outside agency to help to rake through all the submissions and try and identify where there are common themes and indeed where there are important pieces of information and suggestions which we might want to explore. Yes, of course there are themes.

  122. I think there would be a huge commonality of the strategic overview of the sector and some of the issues it faces. You have had 1,000 submissions. Many of us will have received certainly tens of submissions of various kinds which groups have kindly thought we might be interested in, and many of them are very interesting, but they often say virtually identical things. The big gap, which I think most of us would hope your Commission would fill, is turning a strategic overview and identification of common themes into a set of precise policy tools. The number of times we have been told that there needs to be reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, a move from production systems to support, etcetera, etcetera. I do not want to hear any more of those. What I would like to hear more of is how exactly are we going to do this and how are we going to do that consistent with our membership of the European Union and our commitment to trade liberalisation and all of the other pre-conditions that are put in place on this inquiry and on any farm policy that we might devise?
  (Sir Don Curry) Indeed, you are quite right, that is the challenge. The analysis is not difficult and there is a recognition that things have got to change. Indeed, as someone said to me very early on in this process, the current system of support and the circumstances that our industry finds itself in is not making anyone very happy, so things have to change. And it is tracking that change, and we are determined not simply to agree a vision but agree how to get there. That will be fraught with numerous obstacles—reform of the European Union is one, as is the pace of change. We will have to look clearly at all of the external forces which will impact on the delivery of the vision, but I am very keen not only to say we believe this is the route forward, but also to stage the process of how we get there.

  123. This has to be practical, not a set of heady aspirations.
  (Sir Don Curry) Indeed, and we must know who is responsible for delivering that change.

Mr Drew

  124. Can I return very quickly to the structure of the group. Can I just clarify, can you co-opt?
  (Sir Don Curry) No. If I had seriously believed that we had a weakness on that group I would have approached government to ask for that weakness to be filled. I do not believe we need to do that. We have ten Commissioners, including myself. It is quite large enough. The range of skill and knowledge around the table is immense. We are seeking outside help wherever possible. We are talking to interest groups who believe they are not represented, if that is a correct phrase, on the Commission, and giving them lots of opportunity to make sure that we understand their views and we build them into our thinking.

  125. Can I suggest two possible lacunae in terms of who you have got on there—firstly, representatives of small farmers (and the criticism of Reg Haydon is both direct and helpful) but also the co-operative movement. To my mind, two of the obvious areas we need to look at are how small farmers can be given a different rationale to how they farm and, secondly, surely co-operation (I declare an interest as a co-operative member) must be one of the outcomes, which is where we are fundamentally different in this country to our European colleagues?
  (Sir Don Curry) I am aware, of course, that there are concerns on the part of the interest groups that you have identified, and very early I met with Christine Tacon from the Co-op and I saw Christine again last night and I am very keen to use her knowledge and experience to help us understand the issues that are important in terms of co-operative activity. However, let me also say that in every single meeting that we have held the lack of co-operation and collaboration in our industry has been identified as perhaps the biggest single issue, the biggest single responsibility on our industry, and lack of progress is placing us at a serious competitive disadvantage. In terms of togetherness and our ability to deliver efficiently within a global market, the lack of co-operative activity in Britain is seen as a major weakness and that is an area we have to look at very carefully. Our industry has been lectured for many, many years to improve its co-operative skills and little progress has been made so far. So we are well aware of that issue. I have also met, incidentally, with the animal welfare groups who believe they were not properly represented on the Commission and I have met with their Chairmen subsequently. We have given them work to do and we are very keen to have their input. I have met Reg Haydon and we are well aware of concerns about the viability of small farms and what their future is, and we have taken that on board very seriously as an issue for detailed consideration, and are very interested in views that any organisation might have on this particular issue.


  126. You will have attended as Chairman of the MLC a great many "pig breakfasts", one of which took place this morning. Had you been there, a special award was given to a gentleman who runs a web site and newspaper who then delivered an absolutely hysterical rant against the supermarkets. Every single farming prejudice and myth about the supermarket was encapsulated in about five minutes of some of the greatest nonsense I have heard for a very long time indeed. Do you regard it as part of your job to put to rest some of these myths?
  (Sir Don Curry) I am sorry, Chairman, this is a very big subject.

  127. But you have got a supermarket boss on your Commission?
  (Sir Don Curry) We have. I think we have the most efficient supermarkets in the world here in Britain. They are very professional and they have delivered new technologies in the way of logistics and distribution which are excellent. The problems do not lie with the supermarkets; the problem lies with the supply industry and farmers' willingness to collaborate together within an integrated supply chain, not to try and counter supermarket power but to develop an inter-dependency which ensures that farmer are able to sit at the table and properly negotiate and are properly rewarded for their efforts and for the contribution they make in the production of raw materials. In my opinion, it has never been appropriate to slam supermarkets because they involve very successful businesses. The challenge is on our industry to get its act together and its house in order to make sure that it delivers.

Mr Todd

  128. Whenever does it make sense to berate your main customers? A strange business practice.
  (Sir Don Curry) Absolutely. The number of times I have sat in a farmers' meeting where farmers have done exactly as you heard this morning and said "all they are interested in is making money". For Goodness sake, why are farmers in business?


  129. Can I come back to a point Mark made, that a lot of detail is in the Common Agricultural Policy, and it is true that the World Trade Organisation determines a lot of the directions in which we move, and we have enlargement as well, consequently, the range of autonomous national decision-making you may influence is quite small. You are the flea on the back of the elephant, are you not?
  (Sir Don Curry) There are a number of points —

  130. The purpose of the question is simply to say, given that you are operating against a framework which is set internationally, where do you think you can actually say things which will have a substantive influence?
  (Sir Don Curry) Dealing with the WTO firstly, there is still a lot to play for in terms of negotiations that will take place. They will be prolonged and detailed and so there is still a lot to play for in terms of WTO. You are quite right, setting terms of international trade is something which we will have to buy into and abide by. The Common Agricultural Policy, however, is up for review—major review in 2005, interim review in 2003—and I hope that our conclusions will assist government in trying to influence CAP reform. So I do not believe that we are entirely outside of that and unable to participate or influence those negotiations. I hope that our views will be helpful to government in terms of how it should proceed with CAP reform. There is still considerable discretion here lying within the British Government, in terms, for example, of the transfer from Pillar I to Pillar II and how those resources should be used. There are a number of areas we can influence which are crucial to the future of the farming industry and the management of the countryside. I believe it is important that we set down some markers in terms of how policy should be staged in terms of reforming it and driving it and, as I said earlier in answer to Mark's question, delivering vision. That applies to the industry, not just government. Our industry needs a sense of direction.

  131. Talking about the process, you have just said that you have had hundreds and hundreds of submissions. Your Commission is made up of extraordinarily busy people. If you run Sainsbury's you are no doubt completely stretched and there are other busy people. Is it not inevitable that an awful lot of the responsibility is going to devolve down to the draftsman of your report. Who is going to write it? You are not going to write it, are you? So Mr Quinault is the man who is going to be the author of this report. How are you going to go about that? Are you going to try and distill what everybody has said and fathom common points or are you going to ask your Commission members who are not going to read everything, any more than members of this Committee read anything—everything. I do not wish to dispel this myth of omnipotence but the fact of the matter is that an awful lot is going to depend on you, Mr Quinault, in joining together these threads.
  (Sir Don Curry) This is a very trite and silly remark, Chairman, but I am having to put agricultural correspondence on one side at the present time. Can we come back to a remark you made earlier that the people on this Commission are busy people. I am very impressed with their dedication and the time they are making available. You mentioned Sir Peter Davis and he is clearing his diary in order to give time to this, and so are others. It is very impressive how they are making sufficient time available to properly consider the papers, to consider the direction and the vision that we are trying to agree at the present time. Their input is substantial. James can talk through the drafting process.
  (Mr Quinault) I can only endorse that. I am well aware of the responsibility on me and my team. I have been amazed at the time and commitment that members are prepared to put into this. I can only say that on the papers and so on we have shown them so far in the process of trying to work up a consensus on the issues, they have looked very, very closely indeed at what we have put before them.

  132. Has the Haskins Report and the Rural Task Force and the plethora of reports on how we get over foot and mouth influenced you?
  (Sir Don Curry) Chris Haskins' task was very specific, it was foot and mouth recovery and how the rural economy could recover from the impact of foot and mouth disease. Yes, it is helpful but at this stage we are looking longer term than the immediate challenge of recovery from the foot and mouth outbreak.

  133. Do you think you will have something new to say or do you think the merit of your report is likely to be in bringing together and rendering coherent a series of ideas which are in general circulation at the moment?
  (Sir Don Curry) I will be very disappointed if we have not got something new to say. I do, however, think there is a need to bring together many of the policy issues at the present time which are very disparate and fragmented. I have to say there is a lot of confusion out there within the farming industry, particularly about the direction of policy at the moment and where to go for help and trying to find their way through the proliferation of bodies that exist. There is a need to bring all of that together, but I do hope that we will have some new policy suggestions in our report.

  134. The Minister in a recent speech which was given to one of the environmental organisations (it was not a farming audience) said, inter alia, that she wanted to make Britain one of the centres of organic production. On almost any other issue ministers are asked about, they say they are going to await the outcome of your report. Were you not a little surprised that the Minister had decided where she wanted to go on this one even though you had got perhaps the leading figure in the organic world on your Commission?
  (Sir Don Curry) I cannot gag ministers, they can say what they wish. I have asked that ministers keep me advised of any serious policy decisions that they may have to make during the period in which we are considering our report. Organic farming, the marketing of organic produce has clearly increased significantly over the last few years, but it is far too early for me to say whether or not I agree with the Minister's statement.

  Chairman: Sir Don, the last time we saw you it was your valedictory in the MLC and we said we had the suspicion you probably would be back wearing some other hat because you would not like to spend the rest of your time down on the farm or indeed in the pulpit. You have a different type of pulpit, I suppose and we wish you luck in it. Thank you very much for a relatively brief but a very useful session. We do want to keep closely in touch with these Commissions and we have our role to play as well. No doubt we will see you back again and as Enobarbus said to Cleopatra, and I repeat it back to Mr Quinault when he comes to drafting the report, "We wish you much joy of the worm"!

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