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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1140-1142)



  1140. We have clear evidence of other models on the Continent—certainly Denmark, the Netherlands and France—where in some cases farmers control 90 per cent of the processing in their country. Does it perhaps indicate that the competition authorities in this country—and it certainly came up when we considered the future of Milk Marque—are taking an out-of-date view as to the international competitiveness of some market places? Certainly it was argued at the time that by their focus on the UK milk market as opposed to the European milk market, they had failed to grasp that there were other major operators who were competing particularly into the processing sector, which they were covering by their approach to Milk Marque.
  (Margaret Beckett) I am familiar with that argument, and it is a very long-running and long-standing, almost philosophical debate which runs much wider than in this sphere. I am familiar with the examples that you give, and I agree that there are striking examples. One cannot dispute that. All I would simply say to you is that if we are in a position where there is any collaboration and co-operation, to say that we are not going to start because if we do and we go to 90 per cent, the competition authorities will stop that, is probably stretching the argument a bit. There is a genuine and general argument about the role of competition authorities and what market place they should be judging, which runs right through the whole area of competition policy, and always has. We can go back to the days of Michael Heseltine at the DTI: should we be judging this industry, should we be aiming for a market leader in Europe as opposed to elsewhere? It is a very, very difficult issue.


  1141. Secretary of State, British agriculture over the last few years has obviously had quite a lot of trauma, with BSE, foot and mouth disease, and now we have the rumbling problem of bovine TB which is more regional in its focus. Through all of this there has been the leitmotif of the pound/continental currency/euro relationship which I think has been by far the most debilitating factor over the long term. So farmers do come along quite often, I find, and say, "We don't know where to turn." Does British agriculture have a future? If you are asked that question and are given a minute to reply without hesitation, deviation or repetition, what would you say?
  (Margaret Beckett) Unquestionably British agriculture has a future, and potentially a very successful future, as long as British farmers want to make it so.

  1142. Would you add to that the sort of phrase which we have heard very little in this Committee during the whole of these last few weeks, that the core of that future is the competitive production of food?
  (Margaret Beckett) Absolutely—competitive and profitable.

  Chairman: Secretary of State, Lord Whitty, Mr Lebrecht, if there is anything you wish to add, no doubt you will let us know. There are one or two more technical questions we will pursue with you rather than taking time before the Committee. We are grateful to you for your attendance.

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