HC Deb 07 November 1974 vol 880 cc1225-30
3. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the recently negotiated sugar agreements.

9. Mr. Molloy

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in what way the EEC sugar agreement will affect the British consumer; and if he will make a statement.

16. Mr. Blaker

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement about his recent negotiations in the EEC regarding sugar.

Mr. Peart

On the special measures to ensure supplies of sugar to meet the Community's deficit, I would refer to the reply given to the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) on 1st November. The cost of this sugar when refined will be far below a world market price but I cannot at this stage make a firm forecast.

On the future sugar régime of the Community, we have secured a maximum quota of just over 1.5 million metric tons at the full guaranteed price.

Mr. Hamilton

Notwithstanding those agreements and the outcome of the talks with the Council of Ministers in the next week or two, will my right hon, Friend give an assurance that he will seek a long-term agreement for the import of cane sugar from the Commonwealth no matter what happens in the Council of Ministers? On the question of beet sugar, will he urge on the British Sugar Corporation the need to get on with modernising its processing equipment to cater for an increased beet supply in this country, particularly in Fife, and possibly the reopening of the sugar beet factory at Cupar? If there is likely to be a shortage of sugar next year, as there may well be, will my right hon. Friend not hesitate to introduce rationing, as that would clearly be a fairer system of ensuring that poorer sections of the community got a fair share of what was going?

Mr. Peart

As my hon. Friend knows I did secure an increase in the acreage quota for beet sugar, but I am anxious to look at the position of Scotland on this issue. I am well aware of the matter that he mentioned. On the question of Commonwealth sugar, it is true that this is still a matter for the Community, and the whole question of the Protocol 22 countries, affecting the Caribbean, Swaziland and India, will be discussed very soon in the Community. We are aware of the concern and we are anxious to have a long-term agreement.

Mr. Blaker

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the view which appears to be that of the cane sugar refinery workers, that as a result of his negotiations their jobs are at risk?

Mr. Peart

No, I do not accept that. I think that too much alarm and despondency has been spread by certain people, for whatever reasons. I believe that the cane refiners' position will be safeguarded by the agreements reached in the Council of Ministers. I am meeting the workers concerned continually and have kept them informed throughout the negotiations.

Mr. Molloy

Does my right hon. Friend accept that this is another bitter EEC pill for the British public to swallow, without any sugar to coat it? Ought he not now to try to renegotiate the Australian deal? Is my right hon. Friend prepared to meet all those involved in the refining, distributing and selling of sugar to try to sort out the mess we are in?

Mr. Peart

May I say that I took the initiative to have talks with Australia, as I have mentioned in the House. I also raised the matter in the Community. I hope my hon. Friend will appreciate that Australia would accept a deal only if it were approved by the Community. That is the position. In the circumstances, because of our immediate needs, I believe that what I did, namely, to accept negotiations endorsed by the Community and the scheme that has been announced for one year, is right in the circumstances.

Mr. Shersby

Does the Minister agree that it is in the national interest for the maximum quantity of beet sugar to be grown in Britain, and for the maximum quantity of cane sugar to be imported into Britain, as distinct from the Community, if our sugar supplies are to be assured? Will he therefore press without further delay for the Community to agree to the importation of not less than 1.4 million tons of Commonwealth cane sugar to match the 1.5 million tons of beet sugar which it is hoped to grow in this country if we are to fulfil both our A and B quotas?

Mr. Peart

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The answer to his supplementary question is that this matter will be discussed in the Community very soon. Our position is that we want the 1.4 million tons of sugar at a fair price to the producer. We believe that that would be the consumers' interest too. I have announced the increase in sugar beet, and I think that has been welcomed.

Mr. Jay

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, according to my information, the Australians were willing to offer about 300,000 tons a year for a minimum of five years, that the price for raw Australian sugar would have been about £140 a ton, compared with the EEC price of £134 a ton, and that, allowing for the subsidy involved, there would have been no great difference in the price? In those circumstances, was he right to turn down this offer?

Mr. Pearl

I think my right hon. Friend has been wrongly informed. Australia was asking us to pay a higher price than we shall pay for Community sugar. There is no question about that. The price was £180 a ton, compared with £156 a ton.

Mr. Pym

As the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement runs out at the end of next month, is it not extraordinary that the Minister should be talking about negotiating it with the Community very soon? I think those were his words. Will he assure the House that everything has been arranged, that supplies are settled, assured and fixed, and that contracts have been signed? Is that the situation?

Mr. Peart

The right hon. Gentleman must know that this has to be endorsed by the Community. I did not ask for this. This is the nature of the Community, and the right hon. Gentleman knows that full well. I am anxious that we should have the old Commonwealth Sugar Agreement, and also that we should receive the 1.4 million tons, as the right hon. Gentleman knows.

12. Mr. Michael Marshall

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will give immediate consideration to the introduction of sugar rationing: and if he will make a statement.

18. Mr. Tim Renton

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will now consider the introduction of sugar rationing.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Gavin Strang)

I would refer hon. Members to the reply given to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Corbett) on 5th November.

Mr. Marshall

Is the Minister aware that both that answer and the answer given earlier this afternoon are totally unsatisfactory? Is he further aware that it is time we looked at the practical problems? We know about the long-term difficulties over agreement, but is the hon. Gentleman aware of the difficulties which people working shifts, disabled people and pensioners are experiencing in trying to get to shops early enough to get limited supplies of sugar? Finally, will he confirm that he will take this matter seriously? It has been said that it will be difficult and expensive to introduce rationing. It was not difficult with petrol. Will the hon. Gentleman at least take the necessary powers so that he can move with speed to introduce rationing if necessary?

Mr. Strang

I recognise the difficulties to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but he will have to accept that rationing does not provide a simple solution. I assure him that we are looking at the short-term problems with great care.

Mr. Molloy

Will my hon. Friend ask his right hon. Friend to consider that part of my previous suplementary question which asks whether he will meet the representatives of all those involved in the refining, distributing and selling of sugar to try to resolve the mystery about there being tons and tons of sugar somewhere? Everyone has sugar except the British housewife.

Mr. Strang

Let me take the first point first. We recognise the position of the refinery workers, and I suspect that no group of workers has had more frequent and direct access to a Minister than they have had to my right hon. Friend. Only this morning, two of my ministerial colleagues and I met refinery workers from Greenock.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, there is the apparent paradox that supplies that have moved into distribution and supplies of retail packets of sugar over the past few months have been higher than in the previous year. If I were asked to make a comment, I should tell the hon. Gentleman that there are 18 million households in this country and that if only 10 per cent. of them hold a few extra pounds of sugar over a few months it can have quite an impact on the retail position.

Mr. Renton

On the question of the immediate sugar shortage, will the hon. Gentleman stop his hon. Friend the Minister of State for Prices and Consumer Protection from dealing with the problem as he did in a Written Answer on 4th November by saying: The public can also help by not hoarding sugar".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th November 1974, Vol. 880, c. 39.] That has the same quality of monumental truth as saying that there would not be a water shortage if it were to rain

Will the hon. Gentleman personally and immediately read a letter that I shall send him this afternoon from a constituent who points out that she has been without any sugar for five—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not think we need have the content of the letter today.

Mr. Strang

The fact is that more sugar has moved into distribution in recent months than in the previous year. Of course there are short-term supply difficulties, and of course they have been exacerbated by recent industrial action at Silvertown, and of course my right hon. Friend is looking into this matter very closely indeed.

Mr. Kershaw

Will the Minister of State realise that, for the first time since the repeal of the Corn Laws, it is possible for the British farmer to produce food more cheaply than it can be imported? Is it not a remarkable achievement by this Government to have produced at the same time extreme shortages, very high prices, very high subsidies, and ruination for farmers? Does that not demand a very high degree of incompetence, even from a Government such as this?

Mr. Strang

We have serious difficulties at present in both these areas, but they did not arise in March this year. The beef and sugar situations owe a great deal to the failure of right hon. Gentlemen opposite. The right time to make proper arrangements for beef and sugar was when we were entering the Common Market.

Mr. Pym

Does the Minister accept that his complacency is in stark contrast to the experience of the housewife? Does he also accept that the vagueness of the answer given by his right hon. Friend about future supplies could well lead to rationing, and that that would be the Government's responsibility?

Mr. Strang

We utterly reject any suggestion of complacency. The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the Government are doing everything they can and are considering every possible measure to improve the situation.

Mr. Marshall

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment.

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