Author Topic: Common Agricultural Policy - Debate | Lords debates  (Read 724 times)

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Common Agricultural Policy - Debate | Lords debates
« on: December 29, 2010, 05:00:21 PM »
Common Agricultural Policy - Debate | Lords debates
18 November 2010, 12:59 pm

My Lords, this issue is of considerable importance, not just to the agricultural sector but to consumers and taxpayers throughout Europe, as well as to developing countries and to all those who cherish our countryside. I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on securing this debate. As he said, it is a timely one, and I join him in hoping that this will be the first of many occasions on which the House returns to this subject as this latest bout of reform unfolds, in what will undoubtedly be a long and tortuous process. Although the subject is of such importance to so many people, it is an opaque, complex and technical one, which therefore often does not receive the proper scrutiny that it should. I see a list of distinguished speakers with a great deal of experience in this matter, so I shall confine my remarks to a plea to the Government for greater transparency in the way the policy operates.

As is well known, Europe has gone through profound changes since the end of the Second World War. We have seen Germany divided and reunited and the Union grow from the original six members of the EEC, almost inexorably, to the current 27 members of the European Union. Globalisation has transformed the world economy with great social and political consequences, yet in the midst of this profound change-one of the most profound and rapid periods of change in human history-this one institution sails on. Occasionally it is buffeted by reforms, and it has changed quite considerably from the original conception, but it is still recognisably the same institution. Its flaws have been well rehearsed, and I do not want to go into them in great detail today, but it is worth just remembering that the combined costs in the most recent estimate that I have been able to find for the British family of four is £10.40 a week in terms of a direct subsidy with the increased costs to the consumer.

This policy still occupies more than 40 per cent of the European budget. The OECD has estimated that the cost to the European consumer in higher food prices due to the CAP is around £39 billion. The policy has done considerable damage to developing countries in the past, although I recognise that there have been considerable changes in recent years which have mitigated those problems. The figures are very complex and it is difficult to secure any kind of unanimity on them, and the impact on developing countries clearly depends on where the countries are and what period we are talking about, but it is generally accepted that this process of agricultural subsidy has done great damage in the past to some of the world's poorest people.

The CAP has not really even benefited the farmers that it was most meant to protect. Because payments remain linked to production, 85 per cent of aid still goes to the top 17 per cent of recipients. In 2008, Prince Hans Adam of Liechtenstein got nearly €1.6 million in subsidy, while Prince Albert of Monaco got €250,000. In 2009, Tate & Lyle received more than £250,000 in subsidy. As with all agricultural subsidies throughout the developed world, these represent a form of welfare for agri-businesses. This flawed policy costs a great deal of money to administer-about €175 million. For 2004, which is the latest year that can be considered as finalised, which is a statement that in itself speaks volumes, around €100 million was taken up with fraud and so-called irregularity. So far as we can tell from the leaked documents, it looks as if support will continue to be linked to the size of the farm rather than to incomes, so this kind of skewed distribution is likely to continue.

I hope that these remarks, which will be familiar to all Members of this House, will not be construed as me attacking farming. They certainly should not be, because I believe that agriculture is far more than just another business. Among other things, it sustains our countryside, which is so precious in so many ways to all of us. The need for food security is indisputable, and I see the need for some form of stable support. All I would ask is whether this antiquated system of centralised, bureaucratic state subsidy is really the best way forward. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and I will have occasion to return to this debate in the coming months.

Before I move on to my final point, I recognise that there have been significant improvements in this policy over the years. Every bout of reform has seen considerable improvements and I pay tribute to the huge efforts that have been required, as everyone in the House will recognise, from large numbers of dedicated public servants across the European Union. Yet all of that effort has still been what I regard as a patch-and-mend operation on what remains, at root, a flawed policy. If I am right about that, how is it that such a policy, which costs so many people so much, has persisted without really radical reform for so long?

It is a textbook example of how the politics of subsidy work. There are institutional handouts and bureaucracies that perpetuate themselves managing them, obfuscating the process and making it opaque for the general public-the voters-to understand. Above all, the fundamental problem is that the costs of this policy are spread thinly across all the people of Europe, whereas the benefits are concentrated on a happy few so that they have a far greater incentive to keep the system going than those who pay the price, largely in ignorance of what is being done to them.

I recognise that there is no possibility of scrapping the CAP and starting again from scratch. The political costs of any such transition would be impossible. But if we are to see progress in reforming this policy, in the direction in which I think most people would want to see it reformed, we need to have a much better informed public debate. Transparency is absolutely central to that. That is why I read with some depression a judgment by the European Court of Justice, published on 8 November, which said that the current EU laws and regulations on disclosure of beneficiaries of farm subsidies are "invalid". Those regulations about transparency have been responsible for the pressure continuing for reform of this policy. Whatever the legal justifications for this decision, it is clear to me that the public interest must lie in greater transparency.

It must be right that the public understand, as fully as possible, the policy for which they are paying. It is a safeguard against fraud, which has been endemic in the operation of this policy. It should also enable the public to see the counter-balancing advantages of this policy, which previous speakers have already described. I know that the coalition Government are in favour of the Freedom of Information Act. Their Bible, the coalition agreement, says:

"We will extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act",

to promote "greater transparency".

To conclude, what steps are the coalition Government going to take to persuade the European Commission to change the way that its obligation to transparency is discharged in a way that is compatible with that European Court of Justice ruling earlier this month?

Source: Lord Wills's recent appearances (TheyWorkForYou)