26 July 2002

Beckett will back trade & open UK to import flood

By Johann Tasker

DEFRA secretary Margaret Beckett is set to back calls for global trade restrictions to be relaxed in a move that could see food imports worth £billions flood into Britain.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg next month will be a sharp reminder of the fight to bring the fruits of globalisation to the worlds poor, Mrs Beckett told the Labour Partys rural conference at Harper Adams University College on Fri, Jul 19.

Recent figures show that the developed world spends £233bn subsidising its own agriculture and a further £33bn in direct aid to developing countries, she said. But World Bank economists believe that opening up our markets to agricultural produce from developing countries could be worth £100bn to them – three times as much as direct aid.

In her keynote address, Mrs Beckett said: "In our fight for reform in the EU we are playing for very high stakes – not just for a new settlement for Britains farming and a new background to our rural economy, but something which could in time transform the lives of the most vulnerable people on our planet."

Curry commission recommendations that farming must reconnect with its customers had been widely welcomed, Mrs Beckett said. This can best be achieved against a background of real change in the Common Agricultural Policy. Consumers, taxpayers and farmers are all dissatisfied with the CAP which swallows almost half of the EU budget, she added.

"Reform of the CAP is a long-standing aim of this government. We made some progress in Agenda 2000 and we are fighting to build on them in the current mid-term review, to ensure a more sustainable agriculture. There could not be a more important time for this debate."

Lord Haskins, the governments former rural recovery coordinator, told delegates that many British farmers were still "digging for victory", believing that national security was at risk unless the country was self-sufficient in food. "They need to be told that the war is 60 years over," the Labour peer said.

Referring to recent comments by Prince Charles who called for Britain to produce more food, Lord Haskins continued: "People in the countryside spend a lot of time looking backwards rather than forwards. The heir to the throne is a prime example of that, believing we should live in a feudal society where we should all pay more for our food."

The Labour Party has about 180 MPs in what it terms rural or semi-rural constituencies. The conference – its first on rural issues – was designed to overcome accusations that the Party is more concerned about urban areas than the countryside. &#42

But about 150 hunt supporters jeered and shouted as delegates arrived at the conference centre.