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Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I understand the argument that the noble Earl makes. We have paid substantial sums of agrimonetary compensation--a great deal more than was paid during the time of the previous government. We shall not go into that. While I understand the point that the noble Earl raises, in the end we must look at the best potential use of public money for the agricultural industry. That is neither a yes nor a no; it merely explains the framework within which we must operate agrimonetary compensation.
Many noble Lords have expressed concern about the burden of regulation on farmers. I have no wish to be part of a department that gold-plates EU regulations or produces additional burdens on farmers. I am aware that there are noble Lords who do not wish to be part of the CAP--I look straight across to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke--the implication being that the UK should not be part of the European Union at all. That is a debate for another time and place. That is not my view. However, as long as we are members of the EU we have a responsibility towards it and there are negotiations to be had. We must deal with the situation, not just pretend that the European Union and EU legislation do not exist. I am afraid that that is the problem with the O'Brien Bill which is concerned with country-of-origin labelling.
I reassure noble Lords that those elements of the red tape reviews that require work within Europe, particularly in Brussels, are being actively pursued. My right honourable friend had a meeting with Commissioner Byrne yesterday. We hope to make progress on the issue of meat hygiene regulations and the move to a risk-based approach. Equally, a pilot project to introduce the electronic communication of IACS forms is already in place, with the aim of making it available to everyone in 2001. We are also working on new IT systems to allow all subsidy claims to be submitted to MAFF electronically by 2002.
I referred to country-of-origin food labelling. Reference has also been made to labelling in relation to welfare standards. There has been support for the UK not to retreat from its high standards of animal welfare. The response to other countries with lower standards is not to try to impose illegal bans but two-fold. First, we have undertaken consultation on rigorous new rules concerned with misleading advertising about country of origin so that we can take action to ensure that consumers are not deceived, particularly by pig meat products that are described as having been produced in Britain but have simply been sliced or cured here. There is very specific new guidance on that matter. I believe that the way
Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. There is no question of our not supporting high standards of animal welfare. The difficulty is that if other countries are able to produce to lower standards our farmers are put under extreme pressure. They cannot be competitive and so go out of business. I believe that that point has been echoed throughout the House today. I hope that the Minister grasps that nettle. We certainly believe that these standards should be maintained. However, the problem goes beyond the EU. Reference was made earlier to the global market. While we may be able to do something within the EU, global competition is another matter.
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I understand the point that the noble Baroness makes. It is for that reason that we must work within the European Union and the World Trade Organisation in order to make animal welfare part of EU and WTO thinking. We can ensure that we do not allow imports that fall below EU standards of animal welfare, but we cannot voluntarily impose on importers additional standards of animal welfare. The answer lies with consumers. Consumers who as concerned citizens want high levels of animal welfare must follow through their thought processes when they purchase food. It is very important that we encourage the kind of marketing that allows people to do exactly that.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, perhaps I may very boringly interrupt the noble Baroness again. Do I understand from what the noble Baroness says that we must label produce perfectly clearly so that everyone knows what has gone into it, but that it is also perfectly all right to import into this country food produced to lower standards provided it is labelled as such? If so, I should have thought that the home producer would be enormously prejudiced.
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the noble Earl is never boring. Animal welfare and production standards apply at EU level. We must check that we do not import meat and poultry that is produced to lower standards. What we cannot do is impose our own voluntary additional standards as a barrier to trade, and for that reason the marketing issues are important. I was very interested in the suggestion of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, about independent kite-marking. Together with the NFU, we are working on a kite-marking system to see how in this country we can market the additional benefits in terms of welfare and hygiene standards. But that would be done as a joint NFU/government initiative. I am interested in his view that the scheme will not be believed unless it is completely independent.
The important issue of regional marketing was raised. It is interesting that supermarket customer focus groups tell the supermarkets that regional promotions on food are more effective than national promotions. That is an important lesson.
I am concerned about time, so perhaps I may deal briefly with some of the other issues. Feed additives--an animal welfare issue--was a subject raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, and the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby. I was talking about it with representatives of the horse industry today. I know that they are concerned. We had just had a consultation on it. The strength of feeling and the concerns about the effect of the proposals have been expressed clearly. They have given us a great deal of negotiating ammunition to take the issue forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, asked about high quality agricultural land. The PIU report dealt with those issues. It was not government policy but a report to government on which views were sought and some 120 responses have been received. It suggested that the protection of high-grade agricultural land is an outdated barrier to development and that more regard should be paid to protect land of higher environmental value by developing a new framework for identifying the full range of environmental assets. The report illustrates clearly that the issues and the planning framework are complex and require careful and detailed consideration to ensure that we develop balanced solutions. We intend to build on the responses to the report in the rural White Paper which will be published later this year.
I shall read carefully the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, on modulation and the rural development plan. Payments under the England rural development plan will normally go to farm businesses.
My noble friend Lord Hardy referred to access to the countryside. I hope that he has been reassured by the published Bill which makes clear that with greater access there will be greater responsibilities; and that only if people abide by sensible restrictions will they be able to benefit from the new right. The Government's access proposals are not a threat to landowners' and managers' livelihoods and will bring in an important new protection for wildlife.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked about OTMS payment rates. Rates and rules are set by the commission not the Government. We have to consider whether there is any way within the confines of the present scheme--there are financial constraints in terms of the rates, the rules and the Bill--that some of the technical difficulties farmers are experiencing can be resolved.
Reference has been made to the possibility of an early retirement scheme for farmers and the difficulties of tenant farmers. It was one of the issues on which we consulted last year. The majority of the responses to those consultations demonstrated the belief that other rural development schemes had higher priority. It is difficult to frame a scheme for early retirement which meets the needs of those suffering most at present. It is equally difficult to frame a scheme which supports specifically young farmers. Some of the elements of skill training and marketing will be of help in particular to young farmers and young entrants.
The right reverend Prelate spoke about the countryside stewardship scheme. He felt that it was too complicated for some small farmers. Some small farmers manage to benefit from it. However, it is a competitive scheme. Many applications from farmers of all sizes are turned down. I hope that the additional money for the scheme in the English rural development plan will help. Perhaps the right reverend Prelate could let me know of any specific difficulties and I shall look into them.
I was asked about the long-term strategy for agriculture. I spoke about looking for a sustainable future for the industry which recognises its particular contribution to the countryside, to the rural economy and to the rural environment.
Many noble Lords referred to the fact that the Prime Minister, in his speech at the NFU conference on 1st February, signalled his willingness to address the problems with the industry both in the short and long term. Today he announced that that meeting will take place on 30th March, and I should make it clear that it will go wider than the pig farming industry. It will encompass the whole of the United Kingdom and include agriculture Ministers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and food and farming industry leaders. It will be oriented towards action and agreeing a plan for the future of agriculture. I must say to the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, that that is as far as I can go tonight in spelling out those plans.
We have had an interesting debate that has recognised the short-term pressures and the need to look to the long term and to the future. Reference was made to the General Synod debate and its conclusions. I can do no better than share its conclusion of a deep commitment to the long-term cause of securing a sustainable rural economy in which agriculture continues to play a role of fundamental importance.
Lord Palmer: My Lords, when I saw the list of speakers for tonight's debate I knew that we were in for a first-class debate. However, it greatly exceeded my expectations. It was this House at its very, very best. I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part so eloquently tonight.
I have to say that I slightly hoped for more encouraging signs from the noble Baroness, who, in my view, did a splendid job in taking up such a wide range of issues. I am sure that we all wait with baited breath for the announcement of agri-money compensation. I just hope that the noble Baroness is able to twist her right honourable friend's arm. And with that thought, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.