Common Agricultural Policy debate

Neil Parish calls for greater independence when it comes to developing our agricultural policy especially as the EU grows in size one size will not fit all.Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for securing this debate, because it is important that we debate in this Chamber the future of agriculture, farming and the countryside.I thank the Minister for being here. He has a difficult job ahead of him. I do not blame him for all our ills; the European Commission has got it entirely wrong. I have had some slight experience of the European Commission over 10 years. The Agriculture and Rural Development Commissioner has got it absolutely wrong; we have to move to more competitive agriculture, and we must look after and manage the countryside well, but the policy that he is producing does not go in the right direction on either of those issues. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) that one size does not fit all.Let me provide a brief history of the common agricultural policy. It arrived at the beginning of Europe, when the Common Market was made up of six countries, France and Germany being the dominant ones. This was after the second world war, when food was hugely important. For those five or six countries in the middle of Europe, it was much easier, given the type of crops they grew and their type of farming, to devise some sort of common agricultural policy. However, now there are 27 countries, covering from the north of Finland to the south of Greece, and including Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. There are hugely different types of farms—very small farms and very large state farms left over from previous communist systems, and private farms of various sizes throughout the rest of the European Union. If we also consider the different types of crops grown, and all the complicated subsidies introduced over the years—for cotton, olive oil, sugar and everything else—we begin to see the complexity of the matter. I agree that we need to ensure that we have an agricultural policy that suits this country. I know that the Minister is trying to work on that.The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), mentioned fisheries, and he has a point. The Commission is offering more regional powers; whether it is giving those powers in reality is a matter for another debate, but it certainly needs to move in that direction.Let me turn to the need for agriculture. There are now more than 7 billion people in the world. There is a moral duty to produce food, and for this country to do so. As global warming and climate change alter the growth that can take place in many other parts of the world, it becomes up to us to produce good food when we can. Also, we would otherwise have to import food. There is also the issue of the water used to grow food; many countries can ill afford to lose water. Whatever economic difficulties our nation has, we can afford to feed ourselves and buy food, but in many parts of the world, that cannot be done. We need to be conscious of that.We must face up to the reality of where agriculture and farming are going in future; I hope that the Minister agrees with me. I think he does not want to do away with the single farm payment and support for agriculture overnight, but he does want agriculture to be weaned off public support, because we cannot accept, year after year, ever more public support for agriculture. We need competitive agriculture, and we can have it.The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) talked about the poultry industry; the thing to remember about it is that it is competitive even though it is unsupported. It is not supported by the common agricultural policy, so it competes well. We have a successful poultry industry in this country.Dr Whiteford: In recent months, the poultry industry has had to compete on an unfair basis, thanks to EU rules that have pulled the rug out from under it after it has invested heavily. While we are in the common market, the rules must be the same for everyone.Neil Parish: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is a travesty of justice that the rest of Europe has not complied with the requirements for enriched cages for producing eggs, but that is the fault not of this Government but of a weak European Commission that has not taken proper action against those member states that have not complied. No matter what the policy, it must be properly applied across member states, and not just by our country.Barry Gardiner: I absolutely agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. He may be sympathetic to this suggestion: if we were to see the withdrawal of the direct payment subsidy, UK farms would do rather well, because they are better managed and more competitive than many in Europe. That would help our industry, as long as there were common standards with which everyone had to comply—a point made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford).Neil Parish: The hon. Gentleman is right. We have very competitive agriculture, and our country can compete well. As we move on with agriculture, we will have to decide where to put what public support we have. There is an argument for some support in upland and difficult-to-farm areas, not only for agricultural production but in relation to the landscape; that is essential. We have to look at where we can create competitive agriculture.That brings me on to regulation. I praise the Minister for bringing in Richard Macdonald to look at the regulation and to try to remove it from agriculture, so that the industry can be more competitive. However, although the Minister is busy removing regulation, the European Commission is busy applying more, even though the commissioners talk about wanting to get rid of regulation. All the reform will do is add more complication. We have talked about the 7% set-aside, the three or four crops and all the rubbish coming out of the Commission; we need to oppose that, and I know that the Minister intends to.Huw Irranca-Davies: I make one point in defence of regulation, which is that there is good and bad regulation. There is over-regulation and over-complexity, but an area where the farming community has worked well—although we still need to do more—is on the water framework directive. When it comes to our rivers, the quality of the natural environment—something to which the Select Committee and its Chair must have turned their attention—has improved more than we could have imagined 10 years ago. There is good regulation as well as bad. We need to fear the bad, praise the good, and get on with delivering for this country.Neil Parish: The shadow Minister is right that there is good regulation, but he must also admit that there is far too much regulation. It is not that regulation is good or bad, but that there is too much of it. The coalition Government are looking through regulation to weed out the unnecessary and keep the necessary. Over the years, we have built regulation on regulation; that has been the problem. Take farm inspections and other requirements, many of which we must comply with because of European regulation. We often have many different people on farms to inspect, so we are trying to bring in one inspectorate and not have as much duplication.We ought to move towards a strong market in agriculture and agricultural products, which is why, as we can all agree, the groceries code adjudicator is so important. That may not be a European or CAP issue, but it is very much about ensuring that agriculture can compete in the market and get a fair deal from the marketplace. The crux of my argument is that if we are to wean farmers off subsidies over the years, we have to enable them to compete in that strong market.Agriculture is important in itself—it is a huge part of the economy—but there are also 500,000 jobs in the food processing industry, and much of the food being processed comes from this country, as it should. Again, I am not exactly on the subject of the CAP, but I urge the Minister to look at how we procure food, and to ensure that all the food that we eat in this place—and everywhere else, including in Departments and in Westminster generally—is from this country. I assure the Chamber that in France people would not be eating British beef, so the last thing that we want to do here is eat French beef. That, however, is a particular pet subject of mine, so the Minister might not necessarily want to comment.In my constituency, there is a lot of grassland and livestock, both sheep and cattle, including dairy cattle. Much of the livestock is fed on grass, a lot of which is on permanent grassland, but some is on semi-permanent grassland. What I fear most about Commission proposals is that we will see agricultural grassland ploughed up unnecessarily, because of worry about the reforms. The Minister is reassuring farmers and trying to obtain the best reassurances possible from the European Commission, because such a development would be almost criminal. We need to deal with it quickly, to ensure that the Commission does not drive agriculture in the wrong direction.In the future, I want agriculture to stand much more on its own two feet. That has to be. Public support for agriculture should not distort trade between member states or with those in other parts of the world. We must not forget that one of the reasons for reforming the CAP has always been that previous policies promoted high production levels in Europe, and those products were then dumped on the open market, destroying much of the agriculture in developing countries. We have at least moved away from that, and we do not want to move back in that direction.I wish the Minister well in his negotiations with the rest of the European Union. As a Government and as a country, we must seek greater independence when it comes to how we develop our agricultural policy. The European Union must recognise that as it has grown, and will probably grow further, it must have much more flexibility when it comes to agriculture, because one size will not fit all, especially as the EU grows bigger and bigger.| Hansard