HC Deb 07 November 1974 vol 880 cc1215-20
1. Mr. Peter Mills

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by how far his policy of achieving a price of £18 cwt to beef producers is falling short of this figure in the markets of the southwest of England.

6. Sir J. Langfor-Holt

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what action he proposes to take to ensure at once to beef producers the minimum price of £18 per cwt promised by him on 17th July.

10. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will make a statement on the condition of the livestock industry.

11. Mr. Farr

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will induce forthwith a scheme guaranteeing minimum market prices for beef pro- ducers, in order to prevent a decline in breeding stock.

14. Mr. Dalyell

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on Government help to the beef producers.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)

In view of the number of questions about the beef situation I will, with permission, answer this question and Nos. 6, 10, 11 and 14 together and give a longer reply than is usual.

The present low prices for fat cattle are the result of heavy marketings which are one-third higher than a year ago. Some of these cattle are of poor quality and are being slaughtered prematurely because of recent wet weather and anxiety about fodder supplies during the winter. Although there has been some improvement in auction prices in the last few days, the situation remains serious.

In my speech during the debate on the Gracious Speech last week I described the measures the Government have taken to safeguard the future supplies of beef. More than £150 million of support is being given to beef producers this year. The maximum support given to beef producers in any previous year was £80 million, in 1970–71. The additional £100 million recently awarded to the dairy sector will also help to ensure a continuing supply of calves for beef production.

I am conducting an urgent survey to find out how much winter fodder is available and where it is. When we have established the facts we shall consider whether any further assistance could usefully help to distribute fodder supplies to those areas where it is most needed.

I am also considering with my colleagues the problem resulting from the importation of Irish cattle. I must point out, however, that this is a traditional trade and the greater part of these cattle are imported as stores for further fattening by farmers in this country. The numbers imported for immediate slaughter are only a very small percentage of our total weekly slaughterings of cattle.

The real concern at the moment is the I described last week the changes needed need for an assured return to producers, in the beef régime to bring this about. We all recognise the seriousness of the present situation and I shall do all I can to get urgent action to this end at the Council of Ministers' meeting on 18th November.

Mr. Mills

Will the Minister now accept that he has misled and deceived the British beef farmer, particularly in his promise of £18 per hundredweight? Will the Minister now recognise that this is particularly cruel in view of the situation that the beef farmers are experiencing, and will he now use the intervention guarantee in some form or another, or bring in an immediate beef guarantee?

May I say that it used to be "Good old Fred"; it is now "Fred, who has misled the beef producers of this country."

Mr. Peart

I cannot accept that. I am bound by the Community. The Conservative Government decided to end the guarantee. The Conservative Party is bound by the Community, and one of the Conservative Party's shadow No. 2s on agriculture knows full well that his party would not defy the Community. As I have said, I have decided to approach the Community not in February, but this month.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that yesterday I was given an answer on the right hon. Gentleman's behalf saying that the problems today were caused by excessive marketing and generally a lower than usual quality of animals? Is that seriously the argument put forward by the Minister? Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise, even at this stage, that the beef farmers' position is absolutely desperate, and the sort of words that he used, namely, that returns should improve, are wholly inadequate?

Mr. Peart

I said that one of the reasons has been the present low prices for fat cattle as a result of heavy marketing, which is one-third higher than a year ago. Conservative Members should remember that it was their Government who asked producers to transfer from dairying to beef.

Mr. Dalyell

What are some of us to tell the Scottish farmers about the export of cow beef cattle?

Mr. Peart

I know that my hon. Friend is anxious about the O'Brien Report, but there are different reasons. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins), who speaks for farming interests, has next to him the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) who takes a different view. There are people in the House who believe it should be stopped. I probably have a different view, but I must come to a decision, it is true, and the House in the end will have to debate it. We must have consultations with our suppliers. My hon. Friend knows full well about the O'Brien Report. I am probably on his side on this matter, but in the end there has to be a decision made by the House.

Mr. Farr

Is it not a fact that the right hon. Gentleman has been baffled in Brussels and hoodwinked in Luxembourg by the Europeans? Even if he had the desire, he has not the ability to help British beef producers at this moment.

Will the Minister look into the question of large multi-national meat companies which own slaughterhouses in many of the best parts of Britain and which, for weeks, have excluded homegrown beef and are slaughtering only Irish beef imports?

Mr. Peart

Yes, I shall. I give that assurance. But in reference to my excursions to Brussels and Luxembourg, may I say that I believe I got a very good package deal? It was approved by many members of the Opposition. The hon. Gentleman knows that. It gave the dairy farmers the biggest award that they have ever had.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the money being paid out under the beef premium scheme, which my right hon. Friend introduced in all good faith, is not reaching the producer whom it was originally intended to help? Will he be good enough to institute an immediate inquiry into that scheme?

Secondly, on the question of fodder, which is absolutely vital to the stores' producers in Wales and the West Country, will the Minister be good enough to say how urgently this is being examined and when be can make a statement about assistance with fodder to these farmers?

Mr. Peart

Yes, the matter is being considered now. As soon as I can make a statement I shall do so.

On the question of the premiums, I accept what my right hon. Friend said. The premium system was a good system. It was approved by the farmers' unions It could be improved, which is why I am going to Brussels very soon. I shall raise the matter then.

Mr. Stephen Ross

When he is in Brussels, will the Ministers try to correct the system whereby dairy farmers are still getting substantial grants to change over from dairy to beef? It seems to me to be an anomaly in a situation in which we have a surplus of beef. That is one way in which we could save money.

Mr. Peart

Yes, I shall do that.

Mr. Pym

Does the Minister not agree now that his unilateral act to opt out of intervention in March was an act approaching almost criminal folly, from the point of view of the beef producer? We have been let down seriously. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that he spoke in the House in June about £18 per hundredweight. We have been hoping since then that he would meet that commitment, but is it not worse than that? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, as reported in the Western Mail a week ago, one of his officers in Wales was saying that many farmers would do better by accepting as little as £4 rather than by keeping their store cattle through the winter? Does that not imply that he does not intend to act in the near future, when we have been pressing him to act immediately? Will the right hon. Gentleman please comment on that and take action before many of these farmers are ruined?

Mr. Peart

The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that even within the Community intervention has not worked. I thought the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends wanted to put a support in the market, in the sense that the guarantee system—[Interruption.] I much prefer that. But does the hon. Member say that what I have said is not true? One has only to examine the Community—

Mr. Pym

I have.

Mr. Peart

So have I. The right hon. Member knows full well that beef becomes a degraded product as soon as it is put into intervention. This is one of the difficulties. I would much prefer to have in the Market something different from intervention.