HC Deb 18 November 1968 vol 773 cc1075-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Harper.]

12.14 a.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)

I welcome this opportunity to bring before the House the question of the export of live calves. The problem has been highlighted for several weeks in the Press, particularly in the Daily Mail. I have here copies of what has been said, for example, The great Calf Mystery—Why don't they tell us the truth? or, in another example, Calf Exports stepped up". I am grateful to Mr. John Winter and the Daily Mail for pointing out the facts and bringing the matter to a head. The problem, while not very great at present is growing, to the detriment of home-produced beef. The National Plan stated the need for expansion of beef production, and perhaps it was one of the most important parts of the little Neddy on agriculture that we should increase our beef production.

In his statement on agricultural objectives on 12th November, the Minister said that there would be an expansion of beef, and added that the Government would like to see a retention of suitable calves for beef. That is very important. Why, then, has the Minister not acted before on this problem? Is there no concern in the Ministry?

I am not attacking the principle of exporting. I believe that old cows, old sows, and second- and third-rate calves are suitable for export, but why allow our best beef raw material to be exported? To me, the principle is wrong. I am not arguing about the numbers tonight, or whether certain figures are right or wrong. I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will not bog us down with a vast number of figures. I am not interested in them, for it is the principle that matters; it is the policy that is at fault.

I fully understand the feeling among farmers. Good luck to them, for they need everything they can get at present. I declare an interest, because my own calves have been making far more money since we have had this little export boom. I do not blame farmers for wanting it to continue. They are glad to clutch at any straw at present, but for the Government not to look at the problem seriously and with a view to the long term is stupid, and not very responsible.

If there is a plan for the expansion of beef, which the Minister cannot deny, it is wrong to sell our best calves abroad. Dairy farmers should have a profitable income without having to rely on the export of calves which are really needed for raw material for the beef industry.

We are experiencing in the South-West an increase in prices for calves. Buyers are in the market. The calves are going to Belgium and France, and I believe that there have been considerable inquiries from Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Holland and other countries. This has meant that calf prices have risen by at least £5 to £8 a head. I repeat that these are our best calves. I should not mind so much if they were the second- or third-rate calves.

Although I am not concerned with the numbers, it is interesting to see the figures that have been put around. The Daily Mail talked about 29,000 in August, September and October. It is true that there appears to be a discrepancy in Belgium, and that the figures may be exaggerated, but probably at least 1,500 calves a week are being exported. This could create a shortage of home-produced beef in the next 12 to 18 months.

The Ministry know that this is going on. We learnt in a reply to a Question about the number and capacity of approved calf lairages for the export of calves at 24th August, 1968, and changes in the figures since that date, that two lairages, with accommodation for 248 calves, had been approved by 24th August, and that approvals are now operative for 12 lairages, with accommodation for 2,864. That shows that there has been a considerable increase in the lairage accommodation, and that the Ministry knows about it.

I have had a letter from someone in the Rye area. It says: One of our local dealers alone has exported 5,049 since September 10th and up to last Friday. So I cannot think the figures given out or suggested either by the Ministry or N.F. U.H.Q. are correct. It would be interesting to know what the figures are, although my criticisms tonight are not based on the numbers.

What is the Minister going to do about this? Does he deny these facts? I believe that it may be too late at present to undo some of the damage that has been done, but the future remains and it is this with which I am concerned. Is the Minister happy about conditions on the Continent where these calves are going—conditions which would be outlawed in this country? There seems to be one law for the farmer in this country and another for the Continental farmer. An unfair competition in veal production is the result.

This is a serious point. We have our standards, our codes of conduct, and rightly so. Certainly the Ministry will in the near future enforce the rule that calves should have iron in their rations. I agree with these things. But these calves will now be exported and returned to us in some cases having lived on an iron deficiency diet. Where is the logic? Where is the fairness to British farmers?

I go so far as to say that white veal may be obtained in future only from imported meat from our exported calves. What a situation! How ridiculous can we get? I do not understand what is happening to the R.S.P.C.A. in this respect—why it has not made far stronger protests to the Ministry on this point of one standard for us and a different one for those on the Continent.

I hope that the Minister is carrying out a thorough investigation into illicit exports. All the evidence points this way. In the early stages there was a very strong demand in the markets and yet the official number of exports was low. Surely the right hon. Gentleman should have accurate figures and the closest watch kept on correct standards and humane methods of travel. Can we have an assurance on this? Many organisations are watching the situation and we want those assurances tonight.

But to me the most important part of this question is the future. This is of great concern to me. Buyers from abroad have sampled our wares. They know where to come to get some good calves. There have been many inquiries from other countries. With a rising standard of living abroad, they will require more beef, hence more calves from us. This is virtually the only place where they can obtain this raw material. The potential demand is enormous. I have had assurances from some people that the market will grow if we allow it.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary will no doubt say that the numbers involved are very small and that I worry unnecessarily. But I believe that the numbers will swell and that we shall be in a position of shortage of top beef calves for our own beef. I believe that the Minister must take the long-term view. We are drowning, in a sense, in milk and the justification of this tremendous amount of milk is that we shall have calves from the dairy herd and that they will be reared for beef. I believe that to export our best raw material is nonsense.

I shall not say much more, as I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) wishes to speak. He has supported me in this, and I am sure that we shall be interested to hear what he has to say. The Ministry must answer the two major questions of principle which I have asked. In the long term, is it right to export our raw materials? Secondly, is it fair for these calves to be exported and reared in conditions which we would not tolerate in this country?

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will not try to cover up all this—I know that he will not—by a lot of figures. We want answers to the questions of principle.

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

The hon. Gentleman has already made three requests for figures. I hope that he will not object to my giving them when I reply.

Mr. Mills

Not at all, but I hope that the speech will not be one long stream of figures. I am worried about the policy and the principles.

12.26 a.m.

Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (North Angus and Mearns)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) on promoting the debate on a matter which is causing the gravest concern not only in the agricultural community, but among others, and it is right that we should have had the opportunity to discuss it on the Floor of the House. I shall make only three simple and straightforward points, because I want to give the Parliamentary Secretary as much time as possible in which to answer the debate.

First, we must make serious charges against the Minister for the conduct of the last two and a half months. I believe that there has been bumbling over the figures which the Ministry has been using. From various Questions which I have asked, we know that the information about and the statistics of calf exports are grossly inadequate. At the same time as the Minister himself has had to revise his figures, we have had other figures from other authorities, and we are left wondering what the true position is. This is something which must be tightened up.

Secondly, there has been a serious lack of foresight by Ministers. When the decision was made on welfare grounds to reduce the weight of calves which could be exported, there was a complete failure to take into account the implications of this decision economically and in other directions.

Thirdly, following on from this, there has been indecision and inaction by the Ministry in the face of rising public concern. Arising out of that indecision and inaction, I have two specific questions which have already been put by my hon. Friend, but which I reiterate. First, there is the economic question. How can the Minister expect farmers to treat seriously his policy of expanding beef production when his own actions do not match his words? Secondly, on the welfare aspect, how can the Minister hope to get the acceptance of codes of practice when already, by condoning this trade, he is condoning one code of practice for home producers and another for overseas? I support my hon. Friend in the view that this is not a question of degree. It is a matter of principle and I hope that we shall get an answer on principle. This whole sorry tale does no credit to the Ministers responsible for our agricultural Departments.

12.29 a.m.

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

As usual, the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) has used extravagant language. When he does not have much of a case, his language gets more extravagant, as I shall prove to him. He spoke of the Ministry bumbling figures, which is quite untrue, as I hope to prove. That is why I interjected when the hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) was asking me not to give too many figures, having posed a fair number of questions which compelled figures to be given in reply. One honest statement which the hon. Gentleman made was to say that he was selling calves—I do not know whether he was exporting or merely selling them—at fairly high prices.

Mr. Peter Mills

I thought it was fair to say that I was declaring an interest in that I had been selling calves, and they had made considerably more money lately, for which I was very pleased, from a farmer's point of view.

Mr. Hoy

Exactly, and this is one of the difficulties. I was reading today about the export of South Devons, and the first consignment will bring in £635,000. I thought it was very good business, and I am certain that the hon. Member who represents that part of the country will not be taking exception to it.

The hon. Member for Torrington said that all evidence points to illicit exports. If that is so, he will have no difficulty in giving me the evidence, and I shall look forward to receiving it. When he shows it to me I will get my Department to take action on it.

This subject is an interesting and important one. The Government are paying close attention to it, but at the moment it does not give cause for alarm. In answer to a Question from the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns, my right hon. Friend gave some figures. The up-to-date figure, to 9th November, is 13,087. In the same period last year the total was 7,777. Hon. Members will know that figures of calf exports are collected by my Department's port veterinary officers, but have only been collected since 1967.

I am aware of what the hon. Member for Torrington said, that some doubt has been cast upon them in the Press. This doubt seems to have arisen because of confusion between the number of applications for export licences and the number of animals actually exported. This is particularly so in respect of the Belgian trade, where confusion seems to have arisen between the number of import licences issued by the Belgian authorities and the actual number of calves sent to Belgium. I am satisfied that the figures given to the House throughout—and I ask hon. Members to note that—were the right ones.

The current figure is 13,000, for this year, compared with 8,000 last year, when trade was interrupted by the foot-and-mouth epidemic. Trade this year cannot be regarded in any sense as unusual. Its significance in relation to future beef production is comparatively small. There are about 4 million calves born in the United Kingdom annually, and of that number about 500,000 are slaughtered shortly after birth, because it is not considered worthwhile, for a variety of reasons, to rear them. The number slaughtered can vary by as much as 100,000 from year to year, according to the state of the market. In 1967 more than 600,000 calves were slaughtered. This year the figure looks like being nearer 500,000. From the provisional figures it appears that from July to September this year 50,000 fewer calves were slaughtered, compared with the same months of last year.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

These figures of calf slaughtering are very significant and relevant. Have they not also to be related to the number of calves retained? That is the important thing. If the hon. Gentleman would give information about that, it would help.

Mr. Hoy

I think that the number of calves retained is greater, but if there had been 50,000 fewer slaughtered, I think the hon. Gentleman would agree that it would be in the right direction. I shall give further figures later.

It is against this background that the 5,000 additional calves exported must be considered. At the moment this is a small trade, and its effect on the beef herd and beef production in this country cannot be regarded as significant. We produce about 900,000 tons of beef at home. The 5,000 extra calves exported would at most represent just over 1,000 tons.

These are the figures. In view of the seriousness of the charges made, I think the House will agree that it is right that I should put the matter in its proper perspective.

It may be said—the hon. Gentleman said so—that the calves exported are of high quality. They certainly represent only a very small proportion of the high quality calves that are available.

As far as prices are concerned, the part played by exports has been severely exaggerated. Although some people have benefited, as the hon. Gentleman says he has, throughout the year calf prices have in general been higher than they were in 1967. In July this year—before the export trade had started—Friesian bull calves were selling on average for over £4 a head more than in July last year. In September and October the average weekly price of Friesian bull calves varied a few shillings on either side of £19, between £3 10s. and £5 higher than in 1967.

I am obviously not claiming that exports had no effect on prices. They have been one factor in the market, and it is difficult to evaluate the influence of the various factors. In some markets in some weeks their effect may have been significant. But the main cause of higher prices has been not export demand but the keen demand for beef animals from our own producers. This keen demand no doubt reflects the added incentives given to beef production after this year's Annual Review as well as the very firm tone of the beef market.

I think I have said enough to show that this trade is not at the moment of a size to affect our beef production or our beef production prospects in a significant way or our plans for expansion over the next four years. Purchases of calves for export have so far not become a significant factor in the United Kingdom market taken as a whole, and there is no good reason on economic grounds to interfere with the trade at its present level. Naturally, the Government are keeping a close watch on the situation and fully recognise that there could be risks if this trade reached very large proportions.

The hon. Member for Torrington has suggested that some element of unfair competition is involved here. We have on more than one occasion assured the House that our proposals for livestock welfare in general are not likely to place the British producer at a disadvantage compared with foreign competitors. But white veal is a special case, and we propose to discuss imports of this commodity with the overseas Government concerned at the appropriate time. We have still to pass our own code of practice, and we think that, when we have done that, it will be a more likely situation in which to do it.

Circumstances could arise where Government intervention might well become necessary. We are ready to consider such action and the machinery exists which would enable us to act promptly. It is wrong and misleading to exaggerate a trade which, up to now, has been of no more than modest proportions.

However, I assure the House that we are aware of the implications of any sharp rise and shall certainly watch progress carefully, because I want to assure the hon. Member for Torrington that we would be just as concerned as he is if we thought that this trade would continue to increase. I hope that in the next few weeks we might see, not increasing, but decreasing figures. Quite obviously, however, whether they go one way or the other, we must keep a careful watch on them to ensure that what the hon. Member fears does not happen.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for introducing the debate. At least, it has given us an opportunity of explaining the real figures and, at the same time, of assuring the House that if action has to be taken, it can be taken. I assure the hon. Member that the machinery is such that we can take action very quickly, unlike being tied up on certain other problems and certain other commodities. Action can be taken, and I assure the hon. Member that we will not——

Mr. Mills

I am still a little concerned about the problem of imports of veal with iron-deficient diets. The Minister is saying that this matter will be watched and dealt with. Otherwise, there will certainly be unfairness to our own people.

Mr. Hoy

Yes; I have given the hon. Member that assurance. If there was any danger of that happening, of course we would want to deal with it, and we would also want at the same time to protect our own farmers from having to compete against unfair competition. Therefore, I give the hon. Member that assurance. Indeed, if we saw an upward trend or a move in a direction which we did not like, I assure the hon. Member that we would take steps to put the matter right.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to One o'clock.