HC Deb 13 April 1970 vol 799 cc1149-54

10.0 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Price Stability of Imported Products (Specified Commodities) (Eggs) Order 1970 (S.I., 1970, No. 341), dated 4th March 1970, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th March, be approved.

Mr. Speaker

I suggest that with this Motion we take the next Motion— That the Eggs (Guaranteed Prices) (Amendment) Order 1970, a copy of which was laid before this House on 24th March, be approved— if that is agreeable to the House.

Hon. Members


Mr. Mackie

This Order is made by the Ministers under Section 1 of the Agriculture and Horticulture Act, 1964. Section 1 of that Act enables the Ministers to make Orders introducing minimum import prices and levy arrangements in the interests of maintaining in the United Kingdom a stable market for agricultural and horticultural produce of any description produced in the United Kingdom.

The House has recently debated the Agriculture Bill. Part I of that Bill sets out measures to improve the domestic marketing of eggs, including the phasing out of the subsidy, the ending of the British Egg Marketing Board and the establishment of the new Eggs Authority. These arrangements follow the recommendations of the Reorganisation Commission for Eggs which emphasised in its report the need to safeguard United Kingdom producers from the risk of market disruption by excessively low-priced imports.

The Government accepted this recommendation and have always said that a minimum import price scheme would be an integral part of the new marketing arrangements for eggs. It was not necessary to provide for the introduction of minimum import price measures in the Agriculture Bill because the powers to do so already existed in the 1964 Act.

The House will recall that the application of the powers in Section 1 of the 1964 Act to particular commodities involves the making of separate Orders. In this, the Ministers must specify by Order the commodities to which they wish to be able to apply the minimum import price and levy arrangements. An order of this kind is subject to affirmative Resolution in each House of Parliament.

This Order defines the field of commodities within which the Ministers are able to apply and operate the minimum import price and levy arrangements. As the House will see, the Ministers have decided to specify a number of commodities which fall within the heading of the Customs tariff "04.05". Commodities which fall within this tariff heading are eggs in shell, frozen whole egg, liquid whole egg, dried whole egg and egg yolks. The Order specifies that all these commodities, with the exception of egg yolks, are commodities for which the Ministers may prescribe minimum import price and levy arrangements.

The House will note that in selecting the commodities to which minimum price arrangements shall apply we have gone rather further than was recommended by the Reorganisation Commission. The Commission was of the view that minimum import prices would only be needed, at least initially, for eggs in shell. However, Ministers have decided to extend the minimum import price arrangements to the main egg products as well, because it is considered that the Commission's view did not take full account of the close inter-relationship between the market for shell eggs and the market for egg products.

The stability of the United Kingdom market for shell eggs will depend to a significant extent on the existence of a domestic processing industry able to absorb any eggs surplus to the requirements of the shell egg market. There will be no prospect of maintaining a viable United Kingdom processing industry if its outlets were liable to be disrupted by imports of egg products at excessively low prices.

The Specified Commodities Order came into operation on 7th March, 1970. Subsequently, the Ministers made and laid before the House a second Order prescribing the levels of the minimum import prices for eggs and for the specified egg products and a third Order prescribing the levy arrangements necessary to maintain the minimum price levels. These second and third Orders, in turn, came into operation on 31st March, 1970, and on that day the Minister made an Order imposing rates of general levy in support of the minimum import price levels for eggs in shell.

The Government have, therefore, fulfilled their undertaking to introduce minimum import price arrangements for eggs and egg products, and I commend the Order to the House for its approval.

10.5 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)

We welcome the Order, because it is in line with our own policy on minimum import prices and control. The problem as we see it is that imports seriously affect the home market and the home producer. It is accepted in the industry that only a small increase in imports can have a very serious effect on price levels for the home producer. Anything above 2 per cent. has a very real effect.

The power sought in the Order applies to certain cereals and cereal products. Whilst problems have arisen, particularly of flexibility, the scheme has worked well and is of benefit to the producers. Tonight, we are adding another commodity to that scheme, so there is a gradual progress by the Government along the road to import control, minimum import prices and a levy system, which is to be welcomed. We are glad that they have been converted to that way of thinking.

Mr. Mackie

Our levy system to put a floor on the market is totally different from a levy system to push up the price to the consumer, which is what the hon. Gentleman's system would do.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Neither hon. Gentleman will be out of order if he talks about eggs.

Mr. Mills

I would dearly like to respond to the Minister's interjection, but I bow to your will, Mr. Speaker.

The Order does not set out the mechanism or the minimum import price figure. These will be dealt with at another time, I hope, but it is the inten- tion of Section 1(1) of the 1964 Act that powers can be given to apply minimum import prices in the interests of retaining a stable market in the United Kingdom for agricultural and horticultural produce. This will now include eggs and certain egg products.

The Government would do well to think carefully about the phrase" stable market", which the Order is designed for and which we all want. We are not too certain that they will preserve this idea and aim.

The Order specifies birds' eggs. This is rather strange, and I must" pull the Minister's leg" about this. What type of birds—robins, blackbirds, or what? The Order does not say. A rather clearer definition could have been given, such as "domestic fowl".

The Order speaks about certain egg products, and much more needs to be known about what the Government have in mind. We believe that imports of egg products are a major danger, particularly in view of the increasing use of egg products in the bakery trade, which will continue to grow. The bakery trade will obviously want to draw from outside this country if it cannot obtain supplies internally. Therefore, this is a major point, and we need to know more about the Government's attitude.

Why does the Order not cover all egg products? We understand that egg yolks are not included, yet the bakery trade uses a great deal, and large quantities are imported. Why are they not included? When I was a boy I always understood that Chinese egg yolks were coming in in barrels. What about egg whites? Certain egg white products are also imported. Why does the Order not include them? May we have an assurance that, if such imports increase, they will be included? This situation needs watching.

We should also like to know the quantity of shell eggs being imported at the moment, together with up-to-date figures of egg product imports. The latter are as important as shell eggs. Can we have a complete list of the products not included in the Order? We welcome the Order, but we are concerned about egg products because we believe that there will be growing importation of these products unless the situation is carefully watched and minimum prices applied to them.

10.11 p.m.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

One of the counties I represent was a large producer of eggs. Now, production there has fallen off a great deal, not so much because of instability of the market but because of low prices. I, too, intended to ask the Minister why the description in the Order refers to birds' eggs. Does it mean that the Order covers other types of eggs besides hen eggs and the other products mentioned?

If the Order gives some stability to the market, it is to be welcomed, although it will by no means deal with the difficulties of the industry. The Minister mentioned processing. This should be expanded in Scotland where the small farmers in the north face great difficulty. Anything which can be done to assist them will be most welcome.

Mr. W. H. K. Baker (Banff)

The Order is largely in the interests of the producers and to that extent I welcome it. As the Minister said, it goes further than the proposals of the Reorganisation Commission for Eggs. I wonder why, since it has gone that far, it does not go the whole hog and take in egg whites and yolks. I understand that egg whites, for instance, are used by bacteriologists in preparing cultures for experimental work, and surely this is important.

One of the purposes of the Order is to keep down imports during periods of glut on the home market, and thereby stabilise the market. Can the hon. Gentleman indicate at what time every year he expects the minimum prices to be effective? Can he also tell us why, when the levy is imposed, the money raised will not go to either the Egg Marketing Board or the new Eggs Authority, where it would surely do a great deal of good? The Government have been niggardly about a subvention for support-buying for the new Authority, although this would have gone some way to help the Authority in turn to help the producers, not least those in the remoter parts of the country which are being badly hit by the proposals the Government have in mind through the new Authority.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Mackie

As the hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) said, the whole aim of the Order is an attempt to ensure a stable market.

I have been asked why we use the expression "birds' eggs". This is to ensure that all eggs coming into the country are covered. It will cover all other birds producing eggs abroad. If we had merely specified "hens' eggs" or "domestic fowl eggs", we would have been open to the criticism that all sorts of other birds' eggs are brought in. That is the simple reason.

The hon. Member for Torrington and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) asked why egg yolks and eggs whites were not included. The former are a minimal import, only about 100 or 200 tons against 20,000 tons of frozen and dried eggs, and it did not seem worth while to include them. However, I assure the House that if these imports increase sufficiently to affect the situation, we shall reconsider the matter. The Reorganisation Commission did not think it worth while dealing with any egg products, but only with shell eggs.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, because of the remoteness of his area, is interested in processing, for no doubt many of the eggs produced in his area go for processing. We have brought all egg products under this umbrella.

I must stick closely to the Order, and any mention of price would be out of order. Therefore, I cannot answer the question of the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. W. H. K. Baker).

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Price Stability of Imported Products (Specified Commodities) (Eggs) Order 1970 (S.I., 1970, No. 341), dated 4th March, 1970, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th March, be approved.

Resolved, That the Eggs (Guaranteed Prices) (Amendment) Order, 1970, a copy of which was laid before this House on 24th March, be approved.—[Mr. Mackie.]