HC Deb 26 July 1967 vol 751 cc716-20
9. Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what further action he will take to phase imported and home supplies of beef.

14. Mr. Stodart

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what assurances he has received from the Irish Government, with a view to avoiding a repetition of the collapse of prices of fat cattle and sheep which took place in the markets of this country a year ago.

18. Mr. Buchanan-Smith

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on his discussions with the Government of Eire about an undertaking not to subsidise the export of fat cattle to the United Kingdom; and if he will make a statement.

23. Mr. Farr

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will now take steps to limit the quantities of Argentinian beef entering the country.

32. Mr. J. E. B. Hill

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in view of the prospective numbers of fat cattle coming forward, what steps he is taking to avert a collapse in the meat market at the end of the current grazing season.

37. Mr. Ian Gilmour

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what plans he now has to ensure that there is no repetition this autumn and winter of the conditions that prevailed on the fat cattle market last winter.

49. Dr. Gray

asked the Minister of Agriculture Fisheries and Food how he proposes to achieve better phasing of Irish exports to the United Kingdom.

50. Mr. Wolrige-Gordon

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will now end the supplement and abatement system under the Fat Cattle and Sheep Deficiency Scheme.

Mr. Peart

I am concerned about the early and sharp drop in cattle prices this year. But I expect total imports of beef from all sources to be lower in the next live months than a year ago. There has been a welcome increase in imports of Irish store cattle, but the larger volume and low prices of Irish carcase beef have undoubtedly depressed our market. Our exchanges with the Government of the Irish Republic are being vigorously pursued with the aim of securing better arrangements in the interests of both countries.

In the meantime, the Government accept that steps must be taken to safeguard the interests of our own producers. We intend to modify substantially the system of abatements and supplements on fat cattle. These will be limited to a maximum of 6s. per live cwt. for this and the next five weeks, and the maximum will then be tapered off to a nominal 4d. from 18th September until, at any rate, the end of the calendar year. I shall consider before then whether the arrangements need to be extended.

These steps will relieve immediate pressure on the market and ensure stable returns to our own fatteners at a higher level than a year ago. They should thereby ensure better returns also for our store producers whose interests are no less important.

Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine

Will the Minister not accept that the situation is very grave and that he must keep a continuing watch on it? Is he aware that between 100,000 and 180,000 more cattle are to come from Ireland this year than in previous years? Is he not aware that there are 60,000 tons of beef waiting to come from the Argentine? Will he, therefore, keep a very close watch on the situation?

Mr. Peart

I assure the hon. Member that I am aware of those facts. I have specifically mentioned the increase in carcase beef. I accept that. I am glad to be able to assume from what he said that he accepts what I am doing about abatements.

Mr. Stodart

While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for the important statement which he made about abatements, in view of the fact that he accepts that home producers have suffered as a result of the Irish agreement, will he either repudiate the notorious assurance given by the Prime Minister or, if he fails to do so, resign?

Mr. Peart

If I may say so, that is a rather naive question. I have here a lovely Conservative document which refers to the Leader of the Opposition as saying, "The whole House will like to welcome an agreement of this kind". Indeed, right hon. Gentlemen opposite have repeatedly praised the agreement. The present situation is not entirely due even to the problem about carcase beef which I have mentioned. Demand in this country for beef has fallen considerably because of the weather conditions.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Does the right hon. Gentleman's complete failure to answer the specific point of my Question No. 18 mean that he has not asked the Eire Government for any undertaking that they will stop the subsidisation of exports of beef to this country? Does he not think this unfair to British producers, and will he not stand up for farmers in the United Kingdom and not just for farmers in Eire?

Mr. Peart

The hon. Member is being unfair. I have repeatedly stressed the position of the British Government and my position to my Irish counterparts. I have said that repeatedly. The hon. Member should not draw those conclusions.

Mr. Farr

In connection with my Question No. 23, is the Minister aware that Argentine imports of beef have been running at 10 to 15 per cent. above the level for last year? In that connection we are glad to know that he is leaving for the Argentine tomorrow. But does he not think that it is his duty to put affairs in this country in order before he goes for three weeks to South America?

Mr. Peart

I am not going for three weeks. I wish I were. I do not think that Argentine supplies are a factor in this situation. On average, the supply position is pretty much the same as usual. It has kept pretty steady. Undoubtedly, the main problem has been the closure of the European market to Irish fat stock and Irish meat products and also to some of our own products. That is linked with increasing supplies coming on to our market even from home production and a lower demand for meat. These are the basic factors. I assure the hon. Member that it is a situation which is causing us concern.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill

Is the Minister aware that the shipping space booked by the Argentine Government for the first two weeks in August is about double that booked for the last two weeks in July? Has he made any representations to the Argentine Government? Secondly, while thanking him for the minor abatement improvements, may I ask him whether he realises that it is the seasonal price scale which is the decisive incentive in marketing the grass-fed animals?

Mr. Peart

The hon. Member obviously wishes to make a long speech. We are dealing, in respect of the Argentine, with chilled meat arrivals. I say that in the second half of 1967 we should have from all sources about the same amount of chilled meat and substantially less frozen meat than last year. That has not been a factor in this case.

Mr. Godber

While acknowledging that the Minister has made an important statement, and while recognising that there will be some amelioration as a result of it, does he not realise that the position is serious in a wider aspect, and that if he is to give real confidence to our beef producers, he will have to do more about the restriction of imports, especially if he wants to get long-term confidence back into the industry, which I assume he does, as do we all?

Mr. Peart

I will certainly look at the question and bear in mind what the right hon. Gentleman said, but he must remember that that would mean a major departure from the traditional commercial arrangements, which affect other countries. I am not in a position to announce any major step in that direction—such as steps which my predecessor never took.

Mr. Gardner

While he is rightly concerned with protecting the industry and home beef producers, will my right hon. Friend also make sure that more of this drastic fall in beef prices is passed on to the consumer?

Mr. Peart

I met the retail butchers only last week—on Friday—and I made an appeal on that subject. I believe that meat is a good buy—certainly many cuts of meat—and I hope that more meat will be taken up.

Sir D. Renton

As this is the second occasion in nine months when our beef market has collapsed, has not the time come for a fully managed market?

Mr. Peart

I wish that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would not say that the market has collapsed. It is not true. There is great danger that, if people spread gloom, they can depress it further.

Mr. Spriggs

Does my right hon. Friend realise that the importation of beef is part of our foreign trade?

Mr. Peart

In reply to an earlier question, I said that we have to bear in mind our commercial arrangements. One of the great difficulties here is that the European market has been closed to exports.

Mr. Monro

In view of the thoroughly unsatisfactory nature of the replies, I beg to give notice that I shall seek an opportunity to raise the matter on the Adjournment.