Shadow DEFRA Secretary Nick Herbert has accused the Government of failing to stand up for British farmers in Europe. He had an exchange with the Secretary of State, Hilary Benn, in the House of Commons during oral questions yesterday:
"What confidence can we have in the Government’s ability to fight Britain’s corner on CAP reform? Why did not Britain fight harder against the absurd and costly proposals for electronic sheep tagging? The Secretary of State left it to Hungary to put the issue on the agenda at a recent Agriculture Council. He says that the current labelling rules on food are nonsense and need to change, but he will not introduce a compulsory scheme to stop British consumers being misled and our farmers being let down. When will the Government stand up for Britain’s interests in Europe?
Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman should look back at what has happened on the electronic identification of sheep. We were the first country to raise the matter in the Council—I did it. He refers to the subsequent discussion in the Agriculture Council, at which my right hon. Friend the Minister of State was present. I am glad to say that we showed leadership in arguing that the cost of what was agreed in 2003 outweighs the benefits, which now flow. The UK has led the way in trying to get changes in the scheme’s implementation because I recognise the burden that it will place on sheep farmers. If it had not been for our efforts, we would be in an even more difficult position. As the hon. Gentlemen knows only too well, to change the regulation, we need sufficient member states to share the view that the British Government have expressed for some time.
Nick Herbert: Frankly, Britain’s farmers will be dismayed that the Secretary of State thinks that he got a good deal for them on sheep tagging. The proposal is absurd, costly and unnecessary. He said earlier that the CAP health check was a useful step forward, but at the time he said that it was a missed opportunity. He certainly missed an opportunity by failing to send a Minister to a crucial summit when the proposals were first discussed. French and German Ministers were there, but not ours. He complains about the pesticides directive now, but when it was voted through Britain abstained. Ministerial hand wringing does nothing to help British farmers. If he cannot do better to defend British interests, is not it time to stand aside and make way for a Government who will?
Hilary Benn: That has been a rather familiar theme this week. The hon. Gentleman raises the pesticides directive, but no European Union country has done more to argue against it than the United Kingdom. We did the impact assessment, through the pesticides safety directorate. We have been leading the fight against the pesticides directive. In the end, it went to the European Parliament, because although there are bits of the directive that we agree with, the bit that we do not agree with is the total uncertainty about what pesticides will be available to treat, for example, diseases that affect wheat. There are bits that represent progress and bits that do not. The Government’s view on the bits that do not represent progress has been clear: we will not vote for that part of the directive, because we should not be asked to sign up to proposals in Europe when, frankly, nobody can say what they will mean in practice for farmers who are using pesticides to try to grow more food."
Mr Herbert later issued a press release:
"From absurd plans to electronically tag sheep to country of origin food labelling the Government has failed to stand up for British interests in Europe. Our farmers and consumers need Ministers to fight the British corner in Brussels but recent years have been a tale of feebleness and missed opportunities."