HC Deb 03 April 1968 vol 762 cc354-6
20. Mr. Jopling

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he now intends to introduce a system of import controls through levies.

Mr. Peart

I am always ready to consider possible modifications and improvements in our system of agricultural support; but a switch to a comprehensive system of import controls by levies raises many problems, not least in relation to our international obligations and general commercial policy and also with regard to consumers.

Mr. Jopling

Would not the right hon. Gentleman at least agree that it would be better if, instead of increasing minimum import prices for cereals, so giving our suppliers overseas a free bonanza, he raised the price through a levy system?

Mr. Peart

I am not so sure that that would be the right decision. Minimum import prices for cereals were introduced by my predecessors. We are having discussions with our overseas suppliers and we may well have to consider a levy system if we do certain things. However, I hope that it is appreciated that this system would not necessarily bring certainty, least of all to the consumers.

Mr. Brooks

Will my right hon. Friend resist the siren voices and recall that many of us who on balance supported Britain's application to join the Common Market always regarded the levy system as the least attractive part of the bargain? In the present circumstances of the Common Market, will he resist pressure to introduce this measure in isolation from all the other possible benefits which might have arisen from the package deal?

Mr. Peart

I am interested in this problem. I note the change of right hon. Gentlemen opposite I hope that they appreciate that rushing to adopt such a system quickly could have disastrous effects on the industry and on consumers.

Mr. Hooson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when I pressed the Conservative Government to introduce a levy system, I was told that it was difficult to do so because of our international obligations? Can he tell the House what those international obligations are and what their present extent is?

Mr. Peart

There are several international obligations affecting certain commodities. For example, there is the Bacon Sharing Agreement; we have international obligations for supplies of butter from countries like New Zealand; we have a minimum import price system affecting cereals from countries like the United States, Australia and Canada.

Mr. Godber

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we are very interested in his change of tone on these matters over recent weeks and that we hope that this means that he has now accepted the logic of such a change? Will he accept our assurance that we will gladly help him to change from the position which he has had so strongly maintained over the last two or three years when he has said that this system was all wrong? He now says that he at least sees something in it. Let us hope that he will go a long way on these lines.

Mr. Peart

I am always prepared to accept the logic of constructive change, but not Conservative change. Unlike the right hon. Gentleman, I have never been doctrinaire about these matters.

Mr. Elystan Morgan

Can my right hon. Friend say how much substituting the levy system for the present system would add to Britain's food bill? Would it be much lower than the figure of £400 million per annum which was tentatively suggested by the Opposition some years ago?

Mr. Peart

The right hon. Gentleman has made his statement and I have recently published a White Paper on the effects on the consumer of the adoption of the Common Market levy system. We have debated the subject. Right hon. and hon. Members opposite must accept that a change to that system would mean very high prices for the consumer.