HC Deb 11 May 1964 vol 695 cc179-83

Motion made and Question proposed, That the Eggs (Guaranteed Prices) (Amendment) Order 1964 (S.I., 1964, No. 462), a copy of which was laid before this House on 26th March, be approved.—[Mr. Scott-Hopkins.]

10.22 p.m.

Mr. W. M. F. Vane (Westmorland)

May I ask three simple questions about the Order? I welcome it because, although I have to accept some responsibility in the past, I have never felt that there was a commanding case for treating duck eggs less favourably than hen eggs under the guarantee system. I know that there were arguments for this, and I must admit that I cannot recall them all. The case was fairly evenly balanced. Hen eggs were treated more favourably.

This Order makes some advance and tends to treat the two much more on a basis of equality, which I am sure will commend itself to hon. Members. I always think that ducks are much more attractive birds than hens, and I never entirely understood why there was this distinction under the guarantee system. I know that in some quarters it was argued that duck eggs were carriers of certain food poisoning agents, and in the public interest I should like it to be made clear that it has been found that this argument was exaggerated and that the weight which we attached to it was perhaps not fully justified.

Referring to the Explanatory Note, I read that … no provision is made for any adjustment in consequence of abnormal imports of duck eggs. I like to think that where duck eggs are imported into this country there is a reasonable assurance that there is no risk to human health resulting from the import of those eggs. This line of argument has been advanced, and I feel that it is only fair that it should be cleared up.

My final point concerns the heading—"The Eggs (Guaranteed Prices) (Amendment) Order 1964." It refers to "laid before Parliament"—eggs laid before Parliament, which, I think, is a new term.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. J. M. L. Prior (Lowestoft)

I apologise to the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Tomney), who, I know, has an important Adjournment debate, but I have heard him from time to time make disparaging remarks about agricultural subsidies and agriculture generally, and I think that he will now realise that some hon. Members like to examine with some detail Orders and subsidy proposals which are put before the House.

Mr. Frank Tomney (Hammersmith, North)

May I ask whether I am being deliberately provoked? I have been sitting here waiting all day waiting for my very important debate and trying to keep my temper. Is ask that I be not provoked at this hour.

Mr. Prior

I thought I would get a reply to that.

Every year we have a very short debate on the subject of eggs. Every year I take the opportunity of complaining about the Government's import policy towards them. I notice that in the first three months of this year imports are down on last year, but they still constitute a grave interference with the home marketing of eggs. I impress upon my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that the subsidy paid for eggs is governed very largely by the freedom of imports.

There could be some justification for imports if the home price was too high, or if there was a shortage of eggs. In fact, we are producing 100 per cent. of our requirements and the price of eggs is very low. At the moment the average price of imported eggs works out at 2d. each. This must mean that they are dumped here. If I thought that it was to the advantage of the public to have these cheap eggs, I would think that such imports could be justified. But, obviously, the public does not like these imported eggs. Most of them have to be broken out and sold in liquid or in frozen form. They constitute a nuisance to the public and a great burden to the Exchequer.

In recent years the subsidy bill for eggs has fallen, but it still amounts to several millions of pounds. I regard this as something which the Treasury should avoid. I hope that my hon. Friend will use his best powers to cut out these imports. They serve no useful purpose either to the country that sends them or to this country, which receives them. I hope that in passing this Order, which deals with the indicated price, which is determined—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Robert Grimston)

Order. There is no provision in the Order about imports. The hon. Gentleman cannot discuss the regulation of imports.

Mr. Prior

I will not argue about your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker.

The Order deals with the indicated price, which is governed by the importing of eggs. The new Article 4(b) refers— in the case of hen eggs, to normal imports into the United Kingdom during the year … I believe that there should not be any imports and, therefore, this new provision should not be included. I hope that my hon. Friend will pass my remarks on to the Board of Trade and impress upon the Board of Trade the need to cut out these imports.

10.27 p.m.

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

The problem with which the Order which this Order amends was designed to deal was largely the effect of dumped imports, or imports the cost of whose manufacture could not properly be assessed in the first place, upon the domestic market price of British agriculture as a whole. That intention is carried on by this Order.

What this Order is less competent to deal with, although the words such terms and conditions as they may specify could possibly comprehend it, is an additional hazard which has arisen since the substantive Order was laid before the House. I refer to the very large producer who is threatening to produce such a large percentage of the country's egg production that the whole scheme could prove completely futile in its attempt to stabilise the income of the egg producer.

I hope, therefore, that when my hon. Friend replies he will indicate which aspects of the problem I have raised come under the phrase … in the light of the aforesaid conclusions and subject to such terms and conditions as they may specify … I offer those words for the benefit of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart), who does not seem to be fully seized of the relevance to the scheme of the question I have raised. I hope that my hon. Friend will say what action under this Scheme, or in some other way, the Government propose to take, or at least the line on which they are thinking.

Quite apart from the hazard to the market in this country as a whole which disease might bring if we have a very large producer, we must not allow ourselves to forget that egg production is part of the agricultural pattern of the country. If it becomes a thoroughly unprofitable part of the agricultural sysem, a proportion of the agricultural net income will be lost and will have to be made up in other ways. This therefore is a question of some substance.

I put it to my hon. Friend that the time has come when the problem must be tackled. Unless we tackle it almost immediately it will be too late to do so, except for emergency legislation which might appear to be onerously selective. If we lay down qualifications and conditions which would serve as a limitation on new producers of eggs the appearance of this problem might, be prevented.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)

I support the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) on Article 4, the substitute article in the drafting, which talks about normal imports. I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary whether he would like to comment on the possibility that there will have to be a special interpretation of the article in view of the coming into effect of Common Market agricultural policy, which undoubtedly will seriously affect the export of Danish eggs.

Although I realise that on the figures for the first quarter of this year imports of Danish eggs into this country are well below the figures for the preceding year, there is a real fear that Danish eggs may be deflected from the German market and may add to the difficulties of the English market. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would comment on this point.

10.34 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Scott-Hopkins)

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane) raised a question about health risks. I must make the point at once that this scheme deals only with duck eggs. There are, I think, no specific regulations dealing with the inspection of imported duck eggs—although there are health regulations for processed eggs of any sort—but, of course, action could always be taken, if necessary, under general public health legislation. I have noted what my hon. Friend has said about criticisms of duck eggs in the past.

There seems to be some confusion about this scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland will realise that there was no time last year to bring in new regulations for duck eggs at the same time as the guarantee arrangements for hen eggs were altered. We are doing that now in this Order. All we are doing in this Order is to amend the original hen egg Order of last year by adding to it a provision in respect of duck eggs. Hon. Members will see on page 2 of the Order a reiteration of what was contained in the 1963 Order with the addition of a reference to duck eggs.

Imports of duck eggs are minute, but with regard to imports of hen eggs in shell, there is provision in the 1963 Order for additional payments of hen egg subsidy to be made if imports rise above a certain norm. However, the main problem with eggs is rather the relationship between home production and demand.

Basically, we are dealing solely with duck eggs, adding them to last year's Order, which introduced an indicator price system, and so on, for hen eggs. I hope that this answers the various points which have been raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Eggs (Guaranteed Prices) (Amendment) Order 1964 (S.I., 1964, No. 462), a copy of which was laid before this House on 26th March, be approved.