HC Deb 03 August 1965 vol 717 cc1635-43

9.48 a.m.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Cornwall, North)

I was pleased to hear the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science, say that he was glad that the attempt to secure the Closure had not succeeded. It must be a long time since any Government have been so incompetent that they have not succeeded in carrying the Closure on this type of Bill. Indeed, I understand that not since the end of the war has such a Closure attempt on this sort of Measure been defeated because of a lack of Government supporters.

Mr. William Yates (The Wrekin)

My hon. Friend may care to know that the Closure on this type of Bill has been forced on only three occasions during the last 20 years. The Closure forced by the Government Chief Whip a short while ago was a most disgraceful and regrettable act against back-bench Members who are trying to look after the interests of their constituents.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Perhaps I need not labour the point. I am sure that the whole country has noted how incompetent the Government have shown themselves to be once again.

At about six o'clock yesterday evening I gave notice to Mr. Speaker and to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that I intended to raise a certain matter.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

Further to the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the Closure, is he seeking to take pride in the fact that only four hon. Gentlemen opposite were present when that Question was put?

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that he has made a serious intervention. When he has been here a little longer he will discover that it is the job of the Government to ensure that they have sufficient supporters present when a Motion of that sort is moved. It is not the job of the Opposition to help the Government to do that.

As I was saying, I gave notice of the fact that I intended to raise the subject of the export of beef and lamb. I told the Ministry about it and I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister or at least another representative of the Department, is not here to listen to what I have to say and answer my questions. [HON. MEMBERS: "He is coming".] I see that the Minister himself is entering the Chamber.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

On a point of order. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is very wrong for any hon. or right hon. Member to suggest any criticism of the Chair. Thus, it is in no way a criticism when I say that I had hoped to be called next, to raise another subject. As it happened, the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) was called. Since I was next—and since the hon. Member for Cornwall, North was called before me—that probably explains why the Minister was not in the Chamber to answer the hon. Gentleman's questions, for my right hon. Friend was obviously thinking that my subject would be raised first.

I am in no way criticising the Chair, but what I have said would appear to indicate why the Minister was not present to answer the hon. Member for Cornwall, North. Would you not agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Samuel Storey)

It does not raise a point of order, but I would only say to the hon. Gentleman the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) that he did give notice to the Chair earlier in the sitting that he did not intend to raise his subject. I think, therefore, that he will agree that it is only fair that hon. Members who have sat here through the night should take precedence.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Further to the point of order. It is true that, prior to recent happenings, I did inform the Chair of that, because I thought that there would not be time. However, subsequently, when circumstances changed, I informed Mr. Deputy-Speaker that I would wish to be called and it would appear that he did not inform you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

It does not really raise any point of order.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

It is on the record.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

If the purpose of the hon. Gentleman the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) was to get it on the record, he has succeeded in doing that. May I point out, too, that I intended no discourtesy when I pointed out that the hon. Gentleman the Joint Parliamentary Secretary was not in the Chamber? I knew the hon. Gentleman was in the House and was available to answer the debate, if required.

I wish shortly to call attention to a reply which I received yesterday from the hon. Gentleman about our exports of beef, cattle and lamb to the Continent. As I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be the first to point out, the pattern now is exactly the same as last year. I seem to remember making a statement about it, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will call attention to it. He may even make exactly the same speech as I made last year.

The point is whether conditions have changed or not, and whether the position will become serious. We want to be aware of the way the Government are thinking about the matter before the Recess, because conditions are different from last year.

But one condition which has not changed is that of the export of carcase meat and live animals on the hoof. The demand for these products in Europe has not changed at all. It is just as strong as it was last year, if, indeed, it has not been stimulated. We find continental buyers up and down the country buying in various livestock markets, and that is one condition that has not changed.

In the 1964 Price Review brought in by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Soames) there were considerable rises in guaranteed prices for milk, calves and beef. In the one this year brought in by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister, there was a miserable rise in milk. The hon. Gentleman is looking astonished again. Does he wish to dispute that? There was a rise in the calf subsidy and a rise in the beef guarantee. The point is that, in spite of these rises, the change has not been, over the two years, as startling and dramatic in terms of an increase in our herds and the number of animals going to slaughter for this country's meat.

The third point that I want to make briefly is that as far as the subsidy is concerned, the presence of continental buyers in our livestock markets has tended to keep prices at auction markets throughout the country at a reasonably high level during the year. That is to be welcomed by many farmers, and I welcome it myself. It also means that, notwithstanding the recent rise in the Price Review, the subsidy level will be almost nil for the year; the hon. Gentleman will no doubt give us the figures, but I know that last week it was nil, or practically nil. That has considerably reduced the liability. The demand from the Continent has strengthened the tone of the market, and this, of itself, helps the Minister by giving him a lower subsidy bill to meet at the end of the year.

It is also true that home demand for meat is increasing, but not a great deal, although the pattern of demand from the home consumer is to a certain extent changing from what was known as "red" meat to the whiter types—poultry, pork, and so on—almost solely, I imagine, because of the price structure, which has also been changing in the last few years, and because of the good salesmanship of those selling the whiter types of meat. The demand is still strong at home for all types of meat.

The first thing that has changed in the last year is the position of imports. Beef imports have gone down, although the drop has not been dramatic—from 271.4 thousand tons of beef last year to about 223,000 tons this year. That is a drop, but it is not very considerable, and it is perfectly understandable. Lamb imports have also gone down slightly. So the position is that demand on the Continent is strong and at home it is continuing, although with a slight shift of emphasis because of the price factor and the change from the red to the whiter types of meat.

The import position is not as good this year as it was at this time last year, and in the Press this morning the forecasts by the meat trade itself of imports up to Christmas-time are not very rosy. The trade forecasts a slightly lower level of imports, particularly from the Argentine, in that period compared with what has been coming in in previous months, and previous years. We can, therefore, expect further cuts in imports, and, therefore, a lower level of imports to come, which will stimulate a higher demand.

There has also been a change in the level of prices. I have here two price lists produced by Sainsbury's, and used by the Department. They show that the prices of beef and lamb in the shops have gone up over the past two years, until today they stand at a very high level, indeed. Over those two years, for instance, topside and top rump, Scotch, has gone up from 5s. 8d. to 6s. 8d., and Argentine from 4s. 4d. to 6s. If trade forecasts are right, we can expect a further rise in prices before Christmas. This will stimulate a rise in the cost of living, with all the unpleasant consequences that that will bring about.

I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will want to do everything he can to help his right hon. Friend the First Secretary by keeping prices down, yet, as far as I can see, prices will go up. There may be a slight flattening out in animal exports, but it would appear from the figures we have that there will not be a very great deal of change there. I will not weary the House by going through all the figures. Hon. Members will see them in HANSARD today.

The figures show that a considerable number of clean animals are being exported. At the same time, it looks as though we are arriving at a position when imports may be reduced. Obviously, we must do something about this. My purpose in raising this matter is to find out the Government's views and intentions.

The long term answer must be that our milk and dairy herds must be stimulated to a much greater extent. We must produce more beef to eat. But what is to happen in the short term? There is no point in being alarmist, and it is not necessary at this moment. But in sight there is a further rise in the price of meat, both lamb and beef, and we are faced with an increasing shortage of imports. What do the Government intend to do? Are they prepared to make new and radical changes to meet the situation?

10.1 a.m.

Mr. Timothy Kitson (Richmond, Yorks)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) for raising this important subject. It is unfortunate that the figures have not been available until just before the Recess. It seems strange, also, that just before this debate on agriculture we should have had a Closure Motion which, I am pleased to say, the Government did not win.

It seems strange too, that the Government should produce a White Paper on agriculture today when it is impossible to take an opportunity to debate it at this late stage. It is unfortunate that the agricultural industry is being treated in this way. It is understandable, however, that the Government do not like debating agriculture in view of the Price Review this year. This is probably why the White Paper has been shelved until now.

These figures are most interesting. They show that 104,000 cows have gone out of the country during the last nine months. It demonstrates that there is probably a lack of confidence in the milk industry. But it is a good thing for the industry that dairy farmers have had this continental outlet for their cattle. Like many in my constituency I have gone out of the dairy business and no doubt some of the animals I was milking in April are now on the Continent and have been consumed there.

If we did not have this important trade, the price of fat cows which have dropped following the Price Review, which caused so many people to go out of the dairy business. This subject has been raised on many occasions, but I have always felt that it would be unfortunate if the Government acted. They should, however, keep an eye on the position.

The trade on the Continent has helped to keep up the prices of beef, and this has been extremely important. If that trade had not existed, beef prices would have dropped in the home market, but it would have been slight. It is most important to keep an eye on the figures and see what happens. I would like to think that we could increase our lamb and fat sheep sales to the Continent. This trade would also be very helpful to our sheep farmers, for there is a tremendous opportunity to export sheep to the continent. I hope that, in some way, the Minister will encourage the export of sheep. I hope that while the Parliamentary Secretary will agree to keep a careful eye on the matter, he will hesitate to introduce any controls, because to do so would have a detrimental effect on both fat sheep and beef cattle prices.

10.5 a.m.

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

I do not know why hon. Members opposite were so concerned about the result of the Division on the Closure. The figures disclosed that there were only four Members of Her Majesty's Opposition in the House. That was disgraceful and reflected no credit on hon. Members opposite and did nothing to maintain the stature of Parliament.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins), speaking about the Price Review, said that the price of milk had risen by only 1d. a gallon and that that was miserable. I will not argue about that for the moment, except to say that apart from 1964 it was the highest award ever made to the milk industry, and if that was miserable, I do not know how he would describe the awards for which he was responsible.

I understand that the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson) is in business and wants to make a good profit by selling abroad, but, although he has gone out of the milk business, milk production has increased every week compared with last year. We are grateful for that increase, which is good for the country.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North and I have discussed this problem and in reply to this debate I could have read the speech which he delivered last year and the statement by the then Minister of Agriculture because the two situations are very similar.

Meat imports from the Argentine have been falling for a long time. Production in the Argentine has not been good of late. There have been complications there and the effects have been felt in this country. Our ambassador in the Argentine has reminded the authorities there that Britain has been a good customer for many years and he has urged the necessity to maintain supplies to us. We feel that our supplier has some responsibility to us and we have asked for deliveries to be kept up.

Mr. Kitson

We have been good customers, but we cannot do anything about drought. The difficulties in the Argentine are due to the drought, but it is unlikely that the Argentine will ever be able to offer the sort of supplies which we have had over the last few years. It might be willing, but the situation there is almost impossible.

Mr. Hoy

I do not dissent from that view. The Argentinians have had difficulties which they could not control. Internal demand there has also been increasing, which has not helped the situation. There has also been strong continental demand. Despite that, I thought that it was right—and I am sure that the House will agree—to remind them that we have been good customers for many years and to ask them to keep that in mind.

I have nothing to add to the figures I supplied to the hon. Member in a Written Answer. They show what the movements have been. One of the things we should take the opportunity of clearing up is the amount of subsidy involved. We hear so much about all the animals pouring out as though they had been subsidised, but the House should understand that a large number do not carry subsidy at all. The only ones which might qualify for subsidy are the clean animals and we do not know whether they are all presented or even come up to standard. The amount involved is not great because the vast majority of the animals come under the heading "others".

Changes have taken place in the meat supply and the consumer has been turning to other types of meat. I can only repeat, with perhaps a little more emphasis, that certain alternatives, such as pork, chicken and lamb, are available this year in even greater quantity than last year.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Can the hon. Gentleman put on record, once and for all, any figure for the 54,700 head of cattle or 13,000 tons? It would be an advantage if we could have the figure for the subsidy.

Mr. Hoy

I could not put a figure on that, because we do not know whether the cattle were presented or not. If they were presented, we would not know whether they were refused or not. What we do know is that, of the total, the number that received subsidy is very small. Fortunately stocks of frozen beef in cold storage are fairly satisfactory. I put it no higher.

If no deficiency payment is made, no subsidy is paid. From October to December, the deficiency payment was nil. From January to March it rose from nil to 16s. 1d. per live cwt. That was the highest it reached. There has been a decrease since and it is nil at present. That is further proof that very little money is involved.

This matter always causes concern, because any Government has to consider the meat position. As the hon. Member said last year, it is the simplest thing to work up a story and cut off exports. This would be a serious step. We are doing our best to keep an eye on the position and we are grateful to the Commonwealth for supplies sent to us by Commonwealth countries. They have been very good indeed. We shall keep an eye on the matter and in the light of circumstances take any action necessary. I can certainly give that assurance to the House.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Will the hon. Gentleman say something about prices?

Mr. Hoy

I am informed that the last price for lamb at Smithfield showed a slight decrease. I did not want to use this to score a debating point because prices go up and down. On the whole, the price has remained stable and we are grateful for that.