HC Deb 29 July 1974 vol 878 cc216-37

12.37 a.m.

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

It is evident from some earlier remarks and points of order that we should remind the Government Front Bench of the exact nature of the proceedings. We are concerned with the traditional right of any Member of the House to seek redress and grievance before voting Supply. That is not a matter in which it lies within the capacity of Whips to enter into agreements. It is a matter for individual Members of the House, and for a Whip to claim that he has agreement from another Whip is to claim rights in a sphere which Whips have no right to enter.

The Government have not exhibited a notice in the Lobby stating whom they would like to reply to the debate. They could have done so had they wished to inform the House which Ministers were to reply to debates. This would have enabled representations to have been made if the Ministers concerned were not considered satisfactory by hon. Members who raised the various topics in the debate. This course was open to the Government but they have not chosen to take it.

It seems that the Minister of Agriculture prefers to be in bed rather than attend the debate. I take it that we are not being invited to believe that at 20 minutes to one he is in negotiation with somebody from New Zealand. Fred is in bed, and that is the truth of the matter. He should be down here, in the House—and that is also the truth of the matter.

I give notice to the Parliamentary Secretary that he will not have the leave of the House to reply to the debate because he simply does not have authority to give any of the undertakings which will be sought by hon. Members during the debate. Only the Minister of Agriculture has authority to give those undertakings. There is thus no point in the Parliamentary Secretary replying. Instead, he would do well to do what he was asked to do some time ago—to get the Minister of Agriculture here, because only he can reply to the debate and give the undertakings which are necessary.

Let us consider the situation in the agriculture industry. We find that in regard to milk, for example, the position is already very serious for the producer, and it will become so for the consumer and for the thousands and thousands of people employed in the milk manufacturing industry. Do not let us be in any doubt about that. This year, returns to the milk producer per cow will be about 60 per cent. down on 1972–73 and about 30 per cent. down in real terms on 1968–69. Only a special review will deal with the problem. The Milk Marketing Board estimates that demand for liquid milk this year will be about 75 million gallons higher and production about 65 million gallons lower than in 1972–73. Yet we are spending £7 million a year on a milk-to-beef scheme.

Taking an average of 800 gallons per cow per year—a modest figure—we shall already have lost, from the applications so far approved by the Departnemt, about 50 million gallons a year. If all the applications so far in are approved—there is no reason why they should not be—we shall have paid people to reduce production by about 129 million gallons, at a time when it looks as if we may not even have enough milk for our liquid consumption. What will happen to the livelihood of the tens of thousands of people employed in milk manufacture, making butter, cheese and cream, if there is no milk for them to manufacture, as could be the case next February?

Let us not continue for a moment more with a milk-to-beef scheme which pays people to do the opposite of what national policy demands. The scheme may have been introduced by the Conservatives. So what? That is no reason for continuing it when it is seen to be inappropriate to our needs. Some idiot has said that the money comes from the EEC anyway, but even that is no reason for paying people to act contrary to national policy.

Milk production is therefore reduced because of inflated costs, and public money is disbursed to persuade people to do the opposite of what national policy requires, with results harmful to the housewife, to people in milk manufacture, to the farmer going into beef when it is already to some extent in over-supply, and to the balance of payments, because we shall have to import our butter and cheese, if it can be imported. It is highly doubtful whether it can be imported. We shall have a situation like that of Marie Antoinette and the cakes: "If you want Camembert you can have it, if you want Danish Blue you may get it next February or March, but you will not be able to have Cheddar."

The situation calls for urgent Government action to increase the return to the producer by about 8p a gallon, whether by an increase in the liquid milk price or by subsidy—a political decision for the Government. Without an increase of that order, the present desperate trend simply will not be reversed. Talking about the next price review at the end of February or March next year simply will not do, because this winter farmers will be forced even more into low farming, into the lower use of concentrates. Their bank managers will insist upon minimum cost farming unless the return is increased by about 1p a pint.

One of the effects of inflation is that more working capital is required to carry the same stock but the price to the producer is not generating working capital. It is not even servicing loans. I therefore press upon the Government, and on any Government who succeed them, that these are crucial questions which must be dealt with without delay.

The beef producer is in a fairly desperate position for many reasons, including the great increase in calf slaughterings over the last year. Because returns to milk producers are inadequate to cover costs, no one has wanted to rear calves for milk production. Although there is alleged to be a beef mountain, it is worth bearing in mind that this represents only about six days' consumption. Even so a stock of that kind, being larger than normal, can completely dislocate the market. I mention that caveat because not many years ago people were wringing their hands and talking about the cheese mountain, but that disappeared within nine months and went into deficit.

The situation could therefore change very quickly. The so-called beef mountain might have a devastating effect on producers' returns now but it will be of no lasting value to the consumer.

The pig producer is in desperate straits. In an earlier debate I quoted the case of a farmer in my constituency who a year ago had 600 pigs and six weeks ago had 30 because that was all he could afford to feed. His returns are less than the cost of keeping those pigs alive. Producers cannot continue on that basis indefinitely.

Many housewives have discovered that there is a problem with sugar, which is likely to continue. There is not much confidence among beet producers. I do not see the sort of increased acreage that we shall need. I do not see the inducement or the working capital to produce it. The position on eggs is desperate too. Rising feed costs have overtaken the putative returns that the size of the flock nationally can provide.

Therefore, across the whole range of agriculture desperate action is being taken. It is no part of my task to say that it is the Government's fault. Much of it is not. Much of it is due to increasing world fodder prices which are not the fault of the present Government and were not the fault of the last Government. What does become the Government's fault, however, is if the remedial action which is necessary is not taken at the critical time when the need for it cannot fail to be apparent.

It will be a matter of the most damning criticism of the Government if they do not take that action. It cannot wait until parliament meets again. That is why I am raising the matter now. The importance of the action makes it unsuitable for a Government to take it when Parliament is not sitting. It should be announced when Parliament is sitting so that any ambiguities or inadequacies in the action can be corrected across the Floor of the House before it is too late.

That is why I wish to have the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food here to reply to the debate instead of his being in bed. The state of the industry requires that. It is not an affront to the most junior Minister in the Ministry to say what he knows to be the truth: that he does not have authority to give the undertakings. I am not saying that he would not like to give them. Tonight is the last occasion before the House rises for the recess when such assurances can be sought by Members of any political persuasion and given to the House. If the Minister wants to intervene to say that his senior Minister is not in bed I shall be delighted to give way, but it looks as if that is not his intention.

Mr. Bishop

On a point of order. I explained the absence of my right hon. Friend and hon. Friend. I think that most hon. Members will accept that explanation.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

One is in Argentina, which means that he cannot be here. The other is surely not out of Britain. We were not told that he was in New Zealand. My understanding was that he was very much in Britain, very much in London, very much in bed. It is highly improbable that he is negotiating with a Minister from New Zealand.

However many Members put the need for immediate action by the Government, there is no Minister present who has authority to give the necessary undertakings. We do not want to be told that the matter is in hand, that consideration is being given to what action the circumstances warrant, and twaddle of that kind. We want specific assurances about the financial injection, not just for milk producers but certainly for egg producers, and to be told what action is being taken to stop the slide in beef. The action announced by the Minister, at inadequately low prices, certainly will not have any such effect.

If anyone cared to inform himself of the assumptions that were made at the last price review about the returns which milk producers would receive from the sale of cull cows and calves, he would find that they have been completely vitiated by the collapse of the calf market. The effect of such measures as the Government have announced is likely to be offset in considerable measure not by an increase in returns to those who breed cattle in Britain, be they milk producers or those who breed beef herds, but by those who breed cattle in Southern Ireland. That is why prices in Southern Ireland have risen considerably. It is those people who will benefit in large measure from the action which has been announced by the Government. I do not believe that it is part of the British taxpayer's function to ensure that farmers in Southern Ireland have a better return for their cattle.

We need urgent action on behalf of the British producer, the British housewife, the consumer and the tens of thousands of people employed in the food processing industry. There are over 100,000 employed in the milk processing industry and distribution. That is apart from those employed in meat packing and egg packing. Many of those people look like being unemployed in February in areas where there is no alternative employment. What will happen to cheese prices then, I shudder to think.

Possibly the charming Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection will come to the House every fortnight, she being charged with trying to stabilise food prices, to announce further huge injections of money to try to keep the price of cheese stable. Her attempts to do so will be quite unsuccessful because the cheese will not be available to be purchased. Measures of that kind will not be effective if we are not producing cheese because there is no excess of milk over liquid consumption and we cannot buy from the international market because it is not available.

Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)


Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

The Government Whip says "Cheerful". If he had done his homework he would know that that is the position the country is entering or which it has entered. That is why one o'clock in the morning, on the last full day that the House is sitting, is the right time to draw to the Government's attention the need to announce this very day what action they intend to take to prevent the full horrors of a national policy of low farming reaching the producer and consumer. That is what faces us.

12.59 a.m.

Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

I had not intended to intervene but I shall do so briefly as a result of the inability of the Leader of the House yesterday evening to answer a question which I put to him and which I hope will be answered satisfactorily at the end of the day.

I must join my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) in his annoyance that we do not see sitting on the Government Front Bench the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I can remember only too well during the last Parliament how time and again the present Minister for State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food furiously reacted when the Minister was not present and when he was faced by the Parliamentary Secretary or even the Minister of State on the other side of the Dispatch Box. It is extremely poor that the Minister himself should not be here to answer this important debate.

My hon. Friend rightly referred to the cheese mountain which disappeared. Equally he might have referred to the butter mountain which disappeared and to the beef mountain which we now have. One of the shortcomings of the Government is that they do not seem to appreciate that the objective of any agricultural policy must be to try to produce a marginal surplus of food. This is necessary simply because if there is not an adequate supply, and better still a marginal surplus, there is bound to be a shortage, and if there is a shortage the housewife will be rationed either by administrative action or by the purse.

Mr. Gwynoro Jones (Carmarthen)

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us, if we accept his premise, why, last September, when the Conservative Government were in office, there was a decline in milk production and, for the first time in the 1970s, a reduction in the dairy and beef herd?

Mr. Morrison

The hon. Gentleman now has his name in HANSARD, if it is ever printed in view of the inability of the Government to control the Government printers. I shall come to that point.

As I was saying, the Government are not pursuing a consistent agricultural policy. The consequence is a steady decrease in the confidence of farmers and in production trends. My hon. Friend rightly referred also to the problems of milk production. Although the milk producer has enjoyed a reasonably satisfactory summer, he has considerable fears about winter in relation to the costs he has to face.

An equally deep if not greater fear should be in the mind of the housewife that she will not be able to purchase the milk products which are an important part of the national diet. I trust that the milk producer will be able to provide fully for the liquid market, but doubts even about that have been expressed.

Next year there will be difficulties again because the Government have not yet made decisions and announcements about sugar beet production. I want to impress upon the Government the need to make an announcement in the very near future about beet sugar prices for the 1975 crop. If the Minister does not make an announcement soon, preferably today, it seems likely that the beet acreage will be cut, to the great disadvantage of the consumer, and instead of growing beet the producers will grow more corn. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will make some statement on that account.

While noting in passing the important points made about the position of pig and poultry producers by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton, I wish to return to the question of beef production. On 26th June the Minister of Agriculture gave an undertaking that the beef producer was to receive a minimum of £18 per cwt. Then, on 17th July, he made a statement in which he announced the slaughter premia. Superficially the slaughter premia seem most attractive, and I am fully prepared to admit that they are a considerable help. The fact is, however, that by themselves they will not live up to the undertaking which the Minister of Agriculture gave to the effect that a minimum price of £18 per cwt would be achieved.

I should like to give an example. The starting point in the first month of the slaughter premia, if my figures are correct, is £9.24 per head. Let us assume that we have an animal which weighs 9.24 cwt. That would mean that for every hundredweight there would be an equivalent slaughter premium or bonus—whatever term one cares to use—of £1. But if the animal is sold in the market for less than £17 per cwt, which at current prices is highly likely, it would mean in effect that the farmer would not receive a total of £18 per cwt.

That example can be repeated time and again, not only for the month of August but in ensuing months. The fact remains that the amount that the farmer ultimately receives will depend entirely on the price that he receives basically in the market. Of course the premium will help to make up the price, and with a bit of luck that price may average somewhere near £18 per cwt. But the £18 undertaking given by the Minister of Agriculture has not been lived up to, and it is quite likely that farmers will not receive such a minimum.

I hope, therefore, that the Minister will refer to this point once again and give greater clarification for the benefit of farmers. I say "for the benefit of farmers" but ultimately it will be for the benefit of consumers, because if the farmer does not receive an adequate price for his beef he will gradually go out of production, and in a relatively short time there will be a shortage of beef and the consumer will then be paying a very much higher price indeed. This is not, therefore, a frivolous or unimportant point. It is something of great importance, firstly to the agricultural industry and then to the consumer.

I do not wish to detain the House any longer. I hope that the Government will have regard to this point as much as to the wider implications of their current agricultural policy, which is steadily reducing confidence within the industry and will produce an increasingly disastrous situation unless very constructive action is taken.

1.10 a.m.

Mr. Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South West)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) for introducing this important debate. The increased costs of production have hit the agriculture industry like a sledge-hammer in the past six months.

Mr. Gwynoro Jones

Twelve months.

Mr. Hawkins

Six months or 12 months. The industry has been hit and it cannot stand up to it.

I want to cite three short examples in three commodities about which I know something and to illustrate them by letters I have received from my constituents. Here I must declare an interest in that I am an agricultural valuer. I have checked with the valuer's association many of the costings that have been produced.

I will deal with pigs first. The sale prices of pigs have been almost static, although they have risen in the past month by a small amount. It is the feed costs, which have doubled since this time last year, which have made feeding of pigs an impossibility. With feed costs at £80 a ton one needs about £4.45 per score to make a reasonable return on one's money. At the present price of about £3 there is a loss of anything up to £5 per pig on the sort of pig sold to Sainsbury's at present.

I have many small pig producers in my area whose whole livelihood depends upon pigs. They do not have an acre of corn or sugar beet. Many of them have built up their farms having been the sons of farmers, farm workers or smallholders. They have worked hard for 10 or 12 years or more. I am talking not of those who went in for pig production a year or two ago because there were good prices to be had but about people who have specialised in it for years. It is those people, producing weaners and fattening animals, who have been hit. They cannot afford to go on any longer. Already many have gone out of business.

One of the most important things is to help smaller farmers who have their whole livelihood tied up in pig production.

Mr. Hamish Watt (Banff)

Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that it was the previous Government who did away with the feed formula, an action which did so much to affect the price of feed in relation to the price of the end product?

Mr. Hawkins

The feed formula paid very well at the time and it may well be that it would be a good idea to reintroduce it now. It must be remembered that from 1970 to 1973 the pig herd increased and that pig farmers were doing pretty well up to January of this year. The trouble is that they cannot spread their income tax over three years and set losses against profits. Doing away with the pig feed formula at that time was the right thing to do. At present we need to introduce something similar.

My area has a large amount of sugar beet. It has probably one of the most modern beet factories in the whole country.

Mr. Watt rose

Mr. Hawkins

I shall not give way for the moment. I know that the factory in Scotland was rightly shut, if that was what the hon. Gentleman wished to mention.

The costs of sugar beet on average land, with a rent of about £15 an acre, are working out at about £157 per acre, which is nearly £50 an acre more than in 1970. The yield on a five-year average of about 15 tons to the acre, plus haulage allowance and pulp allowance, has been only about £150 an acre. Unless we get a bigger payment and a quick contract within the next week or so, people will not sign up for sufficient acreage to keep housewives supplied with sugar during 1975. In practically every small market town in my constituency there is already a shortage of sugar. Farmers have said, both to me and publicly, that unless they get better contract terms they will at best break even and at worst will lose money, particularly this year, because with the dry season the crop will be very poor and probably will be down 10 per cent. on last year.

The Minister, in his last major speech—this is why, although there is a very good Minister on the Government Front Bench to answer the debate, I should have liked the right hon. Gentleman to be present—said that he would shortly announce new contract terms. Farmers must plan their cropping acreage. Before long they will be well into the harvest and they will be planning for the year ahead. It is therefore urgent that the contract terms should be agreed and greatly increased.

Since March 1974 costs of the following items have increased. Labour costs have increased by about £9.17 per acre due to the threshold agreements. The cost of spray chemicals has increased by 15 per cent. Machinery replacement costs have increased by about 12 per cent.

The only other matter to which I want to refer is milk costs. I want to draw attention to what has happened since January this year in the way of major cost increases. The cost of nitrogen, which is vital for the grasses, has increased from £35 to £56 a ton, and it is still rising. This must put about 1p on a gallon. Labour has increased from an average of £38 a week for a dairyman to £42.50, and I should think that further increases are inevitable. Feedstuffs increased by about £10 per ton between 1st February and 31st March, which will put about another 1p on a gallon.

I do not blame the Government for the cost explosion I do, however, blame them for not taking action on it and for not making certain that we have the crops necessary to feed consumers.

1.20 a.m.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland)

We have had a most useful and helpful debate. I am bitterly disappointed that the Minister himself is not here to reply. This debate, immediately before the Summer Recess, demands the presence of the right hon. Gentleman—more so than at any time I can remember in my 10 years in the House—because of the state of the agriculture industry. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will understand that I am not sniping at him. When he seeks leave to reply, I hope that he will be given the leave of the House. That is entirely up to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), who has expressed great regret at the absence of the Minister and threatened not to give the hon. Gentleman the leave of the House.

My advice to the House would be to give leave to the hon. Gentleman provided that he answers in full all the questions asked by my hon. Friends and says what are the Government's intentions in the crucial months which lie ahead. I am not trying to bamboozle my hon. Friend. Whether the Parliamentary Secretary has authority to answer the questions at that level, I do not know. I am a little concerned because the hon. Gentleman has been in the Department for only a relatively short time. If he has already grasped the problems and has authority to answer in this way, well and good; we shall understand that he will answer with the full weight of the Government and the Cabinet behind him.

Thousands of people engaged in agriculture are most anxious for the future, and before we rise for the Summer Recess we are entitled to full answers as to the Government's intentions.

Mr. Gwynoro Jones

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that I represent 4,000 farmers? It is high time that both sides of the House stopped playing politics with the problems of the agriculture industry. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman gets on with his speech, bearing in mind that the Conservative Government were in power for four years whereas my right hon. Friend has held office for only four or five months.

Mr. Jopling

I am not so glib as the hon. Gentleman in telling the House how many farmers I represent. All I will tell him is that my constituency comprises over half a million acres and that I represent many thousands of farmers.

Mr. Jones

Stop playing bogus politics. Get on with it.

Mr. Jopling

I will not be bamboozled by the hon. Gentleman shouting at me. He will have to stay and listen. The answers which the Minister must give to this debate will be of great importance for the future of agriculture.

Mr. Jones

Your lot spent four years doing nothing!

Mr. Jopling

I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at the figures. Let me put to the House the figures showing the expansion in the self-sufficiency percentage of various commodities between 1969 and 1970—

Mr. Jones rose

Mr. Jopling

No, I shall not give way. I see that the Minister is trying to restrain his hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Jones). He knows that the figures to which I am about to refer are damaging to what his hon. Friend was saying. During the four years we were in power, the figure in respect of the self-sufficiency percentage for beef products rose from 72 to 86 per cent. If the hon. Member for Carmarthen thinks that that is failure, he does not know what he is talking about. I regard that as one of the greatest triumphs of the Conservative Government at that time. I must get on, however, because many other hon. Members wish to take part in the debate.

The debate has centred on the effect of rising prices on agriculture, and my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton referred to this point in a startling way. Everybody in agriculture knows how in the last 12 months the cost of feeding stuffs has increased enormously. This is basically due to the increase in the world price of grain. We also know the impact on the industry of the rise in oil prices, which of course has had an inflationary effect. Such commodities as fertilisers, insecticides and other chemical products so essential to agriculture have been affected.

Many commodities have suffered tremendous price rises. One has only to instance the increased cost of producing milk. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton said that a rise of 8p per gallon of milk was the figure which he felt to be necessary. The Chairman of the Milk Marketing Board said the other day that he thought a rise of 3p per gallon was in line with events. Since I have not seen the detailed figures which must be available to the Minister I hesitate to say what should be a reasonable award to the industry, but I must ask him to say whether the Government intend to review the situation and think in terms of a special price injection, in the same way as the Conservative Government acted in this respect in the autumn of 1970.

It is reasonable to ask the Minister what are the Government's intentions. This is probably the last occasion in the course of this Session of Parliament that we shall be able to ask what is to be done about the escalation of prices. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will say whether they intend to have a special review. We have seen Press reports that this may be so.

There is a crisis in the milk industry. We are told that there are threats of un- employment in the milk manufacturing industry. We know that firms involved in cheese and butter production have their problems. Over the past four years we have seen a tremendous escalation in British self-sufficiency in cheese and butter. It has increased from 14 to 22 per cent. in the case of butter. Those engaged in the production of butter and cheese now face the possibility of unemployment, and we want to know the Government's intentions.

Mr. Watt

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that these figures of self-sufficiency are ridiculously low and that only the injection of 8p a gallon will be sufficient to get the industry back on to the even expansion which the country needs so badly?

Mr. Jopling

I said just now that without the detailed figures, which are available to the Minister alone and possibly to others who have access to figures which have not been available to me, it would be wrong to say that 8p per gallon was the right figure. The Chairman of the Milk Marketing Board has suggested 3p. I hesitate to say what is the right figure without access to the background information.

I also ask the Minister to tell us the Government's intentions with regard to the poultry industry. We are told that there is the possibility of a tremendous cut-down in the number of breeding birds, in egg production and in the poultry meat industry. This arises entirely from the background to this debate, which is increasing costs in the industry. These have caused the problem, and we would like to know the Government's intentions.

A number of hon. Members have referred to the beef problem. I did so myself when the Minister made his statement the week before last. On 26th June the right hon. Gentleman promised a guaranteed price for clean cattle of about £18 per cwt. He has brought forth his slaughter premium, which provides a headage payment in August rising to £32.34 in February. That is all very well, provided that the market prices for beef remain at about current levels. Even so, the returns to beef producers will fall a good way below what the Meat and Livestock Commission regards as adequate in modern circumstances. But what is to happen if market prices for beef fall during the next few months?

The Minister was asked this question when he made his statement two weeks ago. We got no answer. We must insist on an answer tonight. We must be told what is to happen in the next few months, when market levels tend to be high and prices traditionally tend to be low, if the price of beef generally in October and November drops to £16 per cwt. and if, even with the slaughter premium, the return to producers drops below £18 per cwt. The Parliamentary Secretary knows that this could happen. His right hon. Friend did not answer this question, although it was put by many of my hon. Friends when we discussed this matter the week before last. We must have answers to these points, because we cannot go on for very long in this way.

I now turn to sugar, which was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Devizes (Mr. Morrison), for Tiverton and for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins). The Minister knows that there have been staggering rises in the costs of production of sugar during the season. I declare an interest as I grow sugar beet and am only too well aware of this problem. In certain parts of the country there are possibilities of low yields of sugar with the dry spring and the onset of virus yellows during the last few weeks.

I have met sugar beet growers from Suffolk and Norfolk during the last month and I know how despondent and anxious they are about the future. They are reluctant to commit themselves for 1975.

Sugar supplies in general to consumers in this country are in jeopardy and in doubt. Even now we have a situation in which sugar in the shops is in such short supply that we hear reports of retailers saying that unless customers buy £20 worth of other goods sugar will not be made available to them.

Surely this is the moment above all moments for the Ministry to tell us what its intentions are for the future. Has there ever been a time when it was more essential for the Government to make it clear that we are determined to fill any shortfall that there may be over the next year or so by increased production of sugar from our home resources?

What is the position about sugar in Europe? We are told that Mr. Lardinois, in the course of the last meeting that took place in Brussels, was very reluctant to allow British producers to have an increased acreage. The Minister must assure us tonight, in the face of the Summer Recess, that if there is to be an increased acreage in Europe for sugar production, producers in the United Kingdom will have their fair and full share, because Mr. Lardinois has suggested that we should not have any increased acreage.

It seems fantastic that when we are short of sugar in the shops in Britain, when the housewife is finding it difficult to obtain enough sugar and when some of our Commonwealth suppliers are not fulfilling their contracts under the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement, we should be denied the opportunity of growing more sugar on our own land. Therefore, we must have a statement from the Minister on the future prospects of sugar production from our farms.

The whole background to this problem is that costs have been going up. The industry is in a state of uncertainty. I am sure that the hon. Member for Carmarthen, who keeps muttering but who has been silent for a few minutes, will agree that there is a great deal of uncertainty in the industry because of increased costs. The difficulty is that the industry cannot go on much longer on the kind of hand-to-mouth basis that the Minister has landed it with this time.

As for beef, the Minister has announced his slaughter premium which is to last until February. There is no indication of what is to happen after that. As for pigs, the Minister negotiated the premium of 50p per score a few weeks ago. That premium of 50p per score is to be tapered off until it disappears on 1st September.

The Minister's policy for our great agriculture industry, which faces a great crisis of escalating costs, provides no basis for farmers to plan for the future. Is it any wonder that those who build agricultural buildings and those who supply capital goods to the industry are finding that orders are rapidly drying up? There are again threats of unemployment, for example in the farm buildings sector. This is because the Government seem incapable of producing a long-term plan. Does not the Minister understand that this industry above all industries demands long-term policies and guarantees if it is to deliver the goods?

Mr. Gwynoro Jones

I support the concept of a long-term policy. The hon. Member castigates the Government for not having introduced a special review. My farmers want to know why the Conservative Government did not introduce such a review last autumn when the situation was equally bad. Will the hon. Gentleman devote two or three minutes to explaining what the Opposition would do in such a situation? I ask him to set the matter out in detail and not to give merely the generalities.

Mr. Jopling

It would be wrong of me to take up the time of the House by explaining what the policy of my party would be. If the hon. Gentleman will wait a short time he will be told in full what my party's policy will be. A debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill is not the occasion for the Opposition to explain in detail what their policies would be. It would be out of order were I to attempt to do so and it would not meet with your pleasure, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman will find that before long a policy will evolve from the Conservative Party which will command the attention, agreement and support of vast sections of the industry.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing me to that point, because it is a good one on which to end my speech. The industry demands long-term policies. We cannot continue on a hand-to-mouth basis. This is the last occasion the Minister will have before the harvest and farmers make their plans for the autmnn and the winter. It is necessary for the Government to state their policy so that farmers can approach the winter with the confidence which we believe is essential.

1.45 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. E. S. Bishop)

With the permission of the House—

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

I object to permission being given.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

Is the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) absolutely firm in his view that the Parliamentary Secretary should not be allowed to speak again?

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

When I tell the House that I shall take a certain course, I take it. I told the Parliamentary Secretary an hour and a quarter ago of my position and he has had plenty of time to get the Minister of Agriculture, but he chose not to do so. I am sticking to my words.

Mr. Bishop

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member had notice at 2.30 this afternoon of which Ministers were to reply to the various subjects raised in the debate.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop


Mr. Bishop

It is shameful and it is showing contempt for the House that the hon. Gentleman initiates discussion on a subject in the debate, having known 12 hours earlier who was to reply, yet only now tells the House that he will not allow any reply to be given to the points he has raised.

The hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling), whom I respect, has, in his capacity as Opposition spokesman, said that it was important to have assurances given tonight to the House because the industry depends upon them. If the industry does not get the replies it has been seeking, it will suffer loss of confidence due to the fact that allegations have been made and the Government, who have a first-class record over the past four months, are denied the opportunity to answer this part of the debate, Other hon. Members who have also raised points will be denied the information they want.

I feel, therefore, that we should ask the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) whether, in deference to his hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland, he will reconsider his decision so that the House and the industry may be given the information which is requested.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Parliamentary Secretary's statement is incorrect. I was not informed at 2.30 yesterday afternoon. I know of no list posted anywhere in the House informing Members which Ministers would be replying. The position stands: I object to the Parliamentary Secretary addressing the House again.

Mr. Jopling

Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of what the Parliamentary Secretray has said, I must reiterate what I said when I first rose. I appreciate that this is entirely a matter for my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop); he has an absolute right to take the line he has taken. But my advice to him, which I am sure many of my hon. Friends would support, is that I hope he will now allow the Parliamentary Secretary to reply on the basis that he gives an absolute understanding that he will give full answers to all the questions we have put to him. That is a reasonable request in view of the climate and difficulties in the industry at this time. I hope that this is regatded as a fair compromise, but I do not know whether my hon. Friend will accept it—it is entirely a matter for him. However, if the Parliamentary Secretary is willing to give the undertaking I suggest, I hope that my hon. Friend will accept my proposition.

Mr. Charles Morrison

Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are in difficulty here. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), quite justifiably in the light of what he said earlier, has refused permission to the Parliamentary Secretary to reply. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) has said, some important points have been raised in the discussion of this subject and in the normal course of events a ministerial reply would be expected. Might the solution be for the Parliamentary Secretary to give an undertaking that the Minister of Agriculture will clarify some of the points raised at 3.30 tomorrow? That is a reasonable compromise which might be acceptable to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Gwynoro Jones

Further to the point of order. May I seek your guidance and protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker? After a long and important debate affecting all our constituents, can you ensure that a reply is given?

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Get the Minister.

Mr. Jones

Is the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) the No. 1 Opposition spokesman on agriculture?

Mr. Jopling

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will guard his words. My right hon. Friend who is the Shadow Minister is convalescing from a serious operation which took place in the last few days. But for that, he would have been here tonight. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not mean to raise that sort of subject.

Mr. Jones

Further to the point of order. The hon. Gentleman knows me better than that; I am not that sort of person. I understand why his right hon. Friend is not here, Since neither the Minister nor his shadow is here, for the sake of agriculture and our constituents may I suggest that we allow the Parliamentary Secretary to reply?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

To deal with the successive points of order, the fact remains that, under the rules of the House, the House is in the hands of the hon. Member for Tiverton. If he chooses to withdraw his objection, the Minister will be able to reply. If he does not, I have no power to alter an established rule.

Mr. Bishop

Further to the point of order. I suggested that the hon. Member for Tiverton knew at 2.30 p.m. the list of Ministers who were to reply to these debates. I now understand that that may not have been so, and I withdraw it. However, the Opposition knew officially through the Whips' Office. They might have taken some action, had the hon. Gentleman given notice of his intention, to ensure that the reply which his hon. Friends say is so important would be given. It is deplorable that, in a debate initiated by the Opposition, on which many hon. Members opposite want replies, they should try to dictate not only the Minister who should reply but also what he should say, in that he should be allowed to speak only if he answers in a way which is acceptable to them.

Mr. Jopling

No one said that.

Mr. Bishop

If I am not allowed to reply to the debate, the country will see that Conservatisn has been put before the consumer and that the Conservatives are playing politics with our most important industry.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Further to the point of order. This has nothing whatever to do with the Whips, as the Parliamentary Secretary would have known had he been listening earlier. The Consolidated Fund Bill is a matter not of Opposition and Government but of individual Members seeking redress before voting Supply. It is because the corrupt practice of Whips thinking that they can make agreements on matters which have nothing to do with them has crept in that some Members are determined to put a stop to it—and I am one of those Members.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Since the hon. Member for Tiverton has maintained his objection, I call the next debate.