HC Deb 02 November 1966 vol 735 cc439-42
9. Mr. Buchanan-Smith

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he is aware that the Eire Government is paying a special headage subsidy on the export of fat cattle to Great Britain; and what action he is taking to prevent beef prices in Great Britain being depressed by these subsidised imports.

12. Mr. Hawkins

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will take all necessary steps to halt the imports of beef from the Irish Free State and the Argentine, to assist in mitigating the losses being suffered by United Kingdom beef producers.

33. Mr. Marten

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he is aware of the effect of the seamen's strike and Argentine and Irish imports upon the United Kingdom beef producers; and what action he proposes to take.

Mr. Peart

There has been a substantial fall in prices for fat cattle since the early summer. Imports of fresh and chilled beef in the July/September quarter were not unusually high. Imports of fat cattle from the Irish Republic have risen, although imports of stores this year have not. I have met the Irish Minister of Agriculture twice recently and made clear to him my objection to the subsidy paid on fat cattle in the Republic. He assured me that this will not continue after the end of this month. In general, I am satisfied that this temporary set back in the market does not justify any exceptional measures against imports.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Does the Minister think it right that British producers should have to compete against subsidised imports from overseas? Does he not realise that meetings alone are not enough? What is needed at this time is action to defend the interests of British producers.

Mr. Peart

I hope the hon. Gentleman realises that we have always had a free market here. The market is there for people to compete in it. If hon. Members are saying to me what they have never said before, namely, that we should end the free market, that is another argument.

Mr. Hawkins

Is not the Minister aware that beef prices over the last four or five weeks have fallen by between £1 and 25s. per cwt. and that even the store cattle which can be purchased at about £7 per cwt. are not being bought for winter feeding? Does not he consider this an extremely serious situation? Does he not agree that the Irish Agreement is wholly against the best interests of United Kingdom beef producers and, whilst not blaming him personally——

Mr. Speaker

Order. A supplementary question must not be too long.

Mr. Peart

The hon. Gentleman must know that fat cattle are not covered by the Irish Agreement. Carcase meat is dealt with, and the store position is also covered. But the position of fat cattle coming in is not affected by the agreement. On his other point, the hon. Gentleman must be aware that our producers still get reasonable returns because of the working of the guarantee.

Mr. Marten

Was the Irish subsidy put on without prior consultation with this Government? Has the Minister made representations about that rather regrettable subject? What is the minimum period of domicile for Irish beef in this country before it attracts the subsidy?

Mr. Peart

I have made representations and this was one of the matters upon which I expressed my views very strongly. I felt that it was right to do so.

Mr. Elystan Morgan

Is it not right that Clause 13(2) of the Treaty allows an escape in this respect, where the subsidy as applied by the Irish Government is in itself onerous? Does not that subsection allow a renegotiation of the Clause? Does not Clause 8 of the Treaty contain provision against dumping?

Mr. Peart

I cannot say that that is the situation without possessing all the facts. I recognise my hon. Friend's interest in this and also his knowledge of the legal implications. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I am trying to answer. I wish hon. Members would listen carefully. I will look into this. As far as I am aware, there is no question here of a breach of the Treaty.

Mr. Godber

Is the Minister aware that I have been trying to exercise great restraint because I hope to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, tomorrow, and to discuss a number of these matters, when I shall be highly critical of the Minister? However, one of his answers on this has brought me to my feet, because he said that producers were getting a reasonable return. He knows that under the last Price Review there was a very substantial abatement and that this is affecting producers.

Mr. Peart

Only yesterday I discussed with the union matters affecting abatement. I am aware of the problem. There in no doubt that the guarantee is working effectively.

Mr. Bence

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the reduction in the price of fat cattle in this country has not been reflected in reductions in butchers' shops? Therefore, would he not instigate an inquiry into the techniques of marketing of beef to see if the benefit of that fall in the price of beef cannot be conferred on housewives?

Mr. Peart

My hon. Friend must be aware of my desire to get my Agriculture Bill through. This is important, because the Meat Commission will deal with precisely the point raised by my hon. Friend. Only yesterday I met the Joint Consultative Council of the meat industry. These are matters I am taking up further with the retail industry.