HC Deb 27 March 1963 vol 674 cc1305-11
24. Mr. Stodart

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what has been the average market price per live cwt. received by farmers for fat cattle in March, 1963, up to the most recent convenient date; and what was the equivalent figure during the same period last year.

33. Mr. Morris

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is the percentage increase in the total payments of beef subsidy in the last available four weeks compared with a similar period last year.

38. Sir Richard Glyn

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he is aware that Argentine chilled hindquarters of beef fetched Is. 10d. per lb. at Smithfield Market on 2nd March, and that this was 8d. per lb. less than similar Argentine beef fetched on the corresponding date last year; by how much British consumers will benefit from this reduction in price; and what will be the resultant increased cost of farm price guarantees.

Mr. Soames

The average market price for fat cattle in the last four weeks was 121/3d. cwt. The corresponding figure last year was 144/ 10d. Payments under the fatstock guarantee were 71 per cent. up over the same period last year, but the subsidy bill is determined over the year as a whole. The recent trend in market prices will not lead to a Supplementary Estimate for this financial year. For the financial year 1963–64 as yet I have no reason to expect that outturn is likely to exceed our forecast for fatstock.

The extent to which consumers benefit from lower prices may vary from one shop to another, but I know at least one chain of multiple butchers which was selling chilled beef on the 2nd March this year at prices up to ls. 8d. per lb. lower than a year ago.

Mr. Stodart

Can my right hon. Friend give any indication of the price to which fat cattle would have to fall in the open market before a Supplementary Estimate was involved? As much the same as is happening now happened two years ago, will he take the best steps he can to try to prevent the imports of beef from being concentrated haphazardly into a short time?

Mr. Soames

I am very much aware of this problem. There are other Questions on the Order Paper dealing with that specific point.

Mr. Morris

How long is the Minister to allow this to go on without taking any action?

Mr. Soames

There is a Question on the Order Paper specifically dealing with that.

Sir Richard Glyn

Has my right hon. Friend noticed the substantial reduction in the price of Argentine beef now being brought into this country compared with the same period a year ago? Is he satisfied that there is no element of subsidised dumping in the present imports? Will he agree that a greatly increased quantity of beef at so much lower prices could have a very serious effect on the British market?

Mr. Soames

Yes, Sir. There is no evidence of the dumping of Argentine beef at these prices. The National Federation of Meat Traders tells me that its returns show that since the end of January the average reductions in the prices of home killed beef made by butchers have been as follows: rump steak and sirloin, boneless, 15 per cent.; topside, silverside, and cheek flank, 8 per cent.; fore ribs, back ribs and chuck steak, 12 per cent.; brisket and flank 20 per cent.

25. Sir A. Hurd

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if, in view of the recent fall in market values for beef cattle and the consequent rise in the Exchequer guarantee payments from 24s. a cwt. in mid-January to 63s. a cwt. this week, Her Majesty's Government have taken action to ensure that imports of beef, particularly from Argentina, are reduced to more normal levels with due regard to the supplies of home-killed beef available.

35. Mr. Peart

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will make a statement about the effect of meat imports from the Argentine and Yugoslavia on the home meat market.

Mr. Soames

The higher level of beef imports over the last three months has contributed significantly to the present weakness of our meat market. Moreover, the higher level of imported supplies has coincided with a somewhat higher level of home supplies.

The Government called the attention of the Argentine Government and the Yugoslav Government, as our principal overseas suppliers of chilled beef, to the situation and urged them to take account of the state of the United Kingdom meat market in planning their exports. Both Governments have replied recognising their interest in the stability of our market and indicating their willingness to discuss the problem with us. The Yugoslavs have indeed informed us that it is not expected that their exports this year will exceed 30,000 tons as against nearly 40,000 tons in 1962.

We have arranged talks with the Argentine Government, the major supplier, about the future levels of their supplies. Clearly it is in everyone's interest that stability should be restored and I am confident that we shall receive the full co-operation of our overseas suppliers. But I would make it clear that the Government is determined to bring about arrangements which will ensure reasonable stability in the United Kingdom meat market.

Sir A. Hurd

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reassuring reply, so far as it goes. Can he give us an assurance that after the present loadings and commitments of Argentine chilled beef there will be a very speedy reduction, particularly during the period up to October, when many home-killed cattle will be coming forward? Can he also say whether it is now quite clear that the Government are taking a grip on events in the meat market so as to ensure that a check is kept on the quantities of Argentine and Yugoslavian and other meat imported, to keep in line with the increasing supplies of home-produced beef which it has been the consistent policy of the Government to encourage?

Mr. Soames

Yes, Sir. What we first have to do is to work out arrangements for the immediate future to ensure that our market is not undermined. The phase through which we are now going, of serious undermining of the market, shows the difficulties and strains which have been put upon our existing system which was conceived at a time of serious shortage of food as opposed to the present time when food is in plenty in the Western world.

For the immediate future, we intend to have talks with our major suppliers to ensure that for the remainder of the months of the coming financial year our market is not overloaded. For the future; we are also to have talks, as we have said, with overseas suppliers to lead us to bring about changes which are necessary in the present system to meet existing circumstances.

Mr. Peart

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that it would be far better to be much more precise? Will it be the Board of Trade which will conduct these negotiations? Is he aware that there is a feeling that the Board of Trade and not the Minister of Agriculture has been determining policy in this matter? Is he further aware that this emphasises the importance of announcing some major marketing reform so that we have a statutory authority which would have some say in imports?

Mr. Soames

As to the Board of Trade running policy, the hon. Member knows full well that for a long time we have been pursuing the policy of guaranteed prices to farmers coupled with virtually unrestricted imports. This has brought about open-ended commitments for the Exchequer to meet the bill for our system. It is this open-ended nature of the commitments which we intend to change.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Would my right hon. Friend draw to the special attention of his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade that in the course of the last twelve years exports of Price Review commodities from Argentina to this country have increased to double the rate of the total Argentine imports of all commodities from the United Kingdom?

Mr. Soames

I do not have those figures with me.

Mr. Oram

While recognising that reasonable stability for the home market is important, are not there two other vitally important considerations to be weighed in the balance: first, the interests of the consumers who want cheaper meat, and, secondly, the interests of exporters? If we are to export to Yugoslavia and the Argentine, do not we also need to receive their commodities?

Mr. Soames

Of course this is so, but it is a question of striking a proper balance.

26. Mr. Bullard

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what account is taken of the estimated volume of overseas supplies of beef in determining the guaranteed price to be paid for home-produced fat cattle.

Mr. Soames

All factors affecting the market supply situation are taken into account. The guaranteed price is set to ensure a fair return to producers.

Mr. Bullard

It has been said that the increased importation of Argentine beef is approaching an amount which some people regard as being normal. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that with the great increases in home production, stimulated I am glad to say by the policy which my right hon. Friend and his predecessors have followed in British agriculture, adequate room will be left in the home market for these increases, and that the question of returning to normality, of going back to some norm of several years back, is out of the question in any agreement which is come to with the Argentine?

Mr. Soames

What we are to discuss in the immediate talks is the level of exports to this country in the coming months. What I think my hon. Friend has in mind is the longer-term issue where we have to strike a proper balance against the background of our national interest between home production and imports.

Mr. Darling

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that to turn the impart tap off and on whenever he is pressed to do so will not solve this marketing problem? Would not he agree that the first essential step is to have a proper system of factory abattoirs in this country and fair prices to the farmers to deliver cattle and pigs to the abattoirs, and a commission to make sure that contracts are made with overseas suppliers at stable prices? The Liberal Party has adopted these proposals, which we have been advocating for years. Would not the right hon. Gentleman think it a good idea to fall in line so that we can have complete unanimity on this?

Mr. Soames

The right hon. Gentleman seems to have definite ideas about what should be done to put all these troubles right. They are very complex indeed, and we shall shortly be taking the advice of a committee which was set up in 1961 and which has been looking into this problem in great detail. I look forward to receiving that advice.

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