HC Deb 24 April 1975 vol 890 cc1726-31
8. Mr. Hurd

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will make a statement about his recent meeting with the other Ministers of Agriculture of the EEC.

12. Mr. Shepherd

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will make a statement about his recent meeting with other Ministers of Agriculture of the European Community.

16. Mr. Peter Morrison

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will make a statement on his meeting with the EEC Agriculture Ministers.

26. Mr. Tim Renton

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will make a statement on the outcome of his meeting with Common Market Agriculture Ministers.

Mr. Peart

On 15th April the Council of Agricultural Ministers found a solution to the current problems of the Community wine market. It also approved my request for an urgent reappraisal of the common fisheries policy to be undertaken in preparation for possible changes in the law of the sea following the current United Nations Conference. I have arranged for a copy of my statement to the Council on this to be placed in the Library of the House.

Mr. Hurd

Will the Minister confirm that when the pound is slipping, as it has been this week after the Budget, the monetary compensation arrangements built into the CAP, although they present problems, substantially protect the British housewife from the rise in food prices which she would otherwise be suffering?

Mr. Peart

Yes, I accept that. I recognise how important they are to the consumer and, indeed, to our livestock industry as regards feed costs. I am most grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Jay

Now that we have a temporary deficiency payments system for beef to support the British farmer, may I ask whether any proposals were made at the meeting for ending the present EEC ban on all beef imports which is holding up the price unreasonably against the consumer?

Mr. Peart

I have raised this matter personally and I was given concessions affecting two smaller African countries. This matter has been urgently studied by the Management Committee and there will be a report. When we are discussing the stocktaking document I shall raise the matter again. I am glad that my right hon. Friend approves of the beef régime which I obtained. I can assure him that we shall hang on to it.

Mr. Shepherd

Does the Minister agree that the agreement achieved at the conference on the wine surplus is an excellent example of how co-operation within the framework of the EEC can overcome difficulties such as surplus production of foodstuffs, and by so doing stabilise prices for the membership of the EEC?

Mr. Peart

I think that I broadly accept what the hon. Gentleman has said. I believe that the dispute between France and Italy, which emerged for reasons that all hon. Members will know, has been resolved. I hope that shows that we can do certain things of that nature ourselves.

Mr. John Evans

Will my right hon. Friend tell me whether he has had any discussions with his colleagues in the EEC about the problems facing British cane sugar workers? Is he aware that the workers in my constituency, whose jobs are now threatened by a glut of cheap continental sugar, cannot understand the situation in which only a few months ago their jobs were threatened because of a gross shortage of sugar? What steps does my right hon. Friend intend to take to bring about a satisfactory state of affairs for the cane sugar industry?

Mr. Peart

I thought that the fact that I was able to obtain subsidised sugar for the benefit of the British housewife, through an assurance from Commissioner Lardinois, was an important concession that could be praised. I also thought that the long-term agreement, which in many ways was better than the old Commonwealth Sugar Agreement, was a decision which was warmly praised by the workers in the industry. I met the workers last week and explained the situation.

Mr. Morrison

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we are delighted that he is one of the Ministers who have decided to recommend a "Yes" vote in the referendum? Will he point to what are the most important reasons which led him to come to that decision?

Mr. Peart

The most important reason was that I was able to achieve success. I achieved certain matters on which I fought the election. I believe that it is necessary to face facts, to be honest and to take certain action.

Mr. Fernyhough

Does my right hon. Friend think that it is a sensible solution to turn wine, which has been produced for human consumption, into industrial alcohol? What is the cost to the British taxpayer of that solution to the wine lake problem?

Mr. Peart

I do not think that one can disagree with distillation. That is a normal process in dealing with surpluses that occur for certain reasons. When good wine harvest occurs there is a surplus, and I would normally prefer to see that wine drunk. If my right hon. Friend wants to have a drink of wine with me afterwards, I shall be happy to join him.

Mr. Renton

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the comment made last Saturday by the Vice-President of the NFU that two years in the EEC have proved beyond all doubt that the common agricultural policy can work in the best interests of both United Kingdom producers and consumers?

Mr. Peart

I read that report. I say to my hon. Friends who may be sceptics that I believe we have achieved all the basic principles on which we fought the election.

Mr. Marten

Will the Minister face the facts concerning the wine lake—namely, that if the Italians and the French over-produce wine, the British taxpayer will have to pay for the privilege of turning that surplus wine into industrial alcohol, which in turn will compete with industrial alcohol produced in this country? Why should the British pay?

Mr. Peart

I believe it is right that when there is a Community decision, we as members of the Community should make our contribution. I can think of many examples where we have benefited. The sugar subsidy agreed by Commissioner Lardinois will benefit our consumers and is paid for by German and French taxpayers. We must recognise that we are in a club. If one disagrees with what is being done, that is a different matter.

Mr. Loyden

In regard to the sugar industry, does my right hon. Friend agree that he may have to look into the allegation that Tate and Lyle in Liverpool intends to become a packing and distribution agency and to pay much less regard to its refining responsibilities?

Mr. Peart

I cannot accept what my hon. Friend says. I am meeting some of the leaders of the industry tomorrow. I take note of what by hon. Friend said, but from what I know of the matter I cannot accept his criticism.

Mr. Hooson

In view of the Minister's avowed intention to seek a guaranteed price for beef, which is extremely important to this country, what is the reaction of other Ministers in the Community to his suggestion that it should be a permanent feature? Secondly, has he raised the question of extending the system to sheep meat, which again is important for British farmers?

Mr. Peart

It has been argued by the French and Irish that there should be a sheep meat régime. I am sceptical about that proposal, and I should like to leave the situation as it is. In regard to the question of a guarantee or variable premium system, I believe that the system will be adopted even by other members of the Community. I believe that we should see how it works over a period of a year, at the end of which time the price mechanisms and structure can be examined by the Commission. I believe that we shall be able to convince the other Agriculture Ministers that it will be in their interests to practise what we are doing.

Mr. Henderson

Is the Minister aware that we welcome the Government's belated interest in a common fisheries policy? What steps is he taking to make sure that the results of his discussions are known to Members of the House and to representatives of the industry? Will he accept that the new figures announced for herring quotas make it a matter of urgency for him to respond to Norway's initiative in negotiating for an exclusive 50-mile limit within the next six months?

Mr. Peart

It is not true that we are taking a belated interest in a common fisheries policy. I was critical of these matters on many occasions when Labour was in opposition and I asked for information on the subject. We must accept that when the Law of the Sea Conference has reported we may face a 200-mile economic zone. Inevitably, that will affect fishery limits. I do not accept that we should act immediately and unilaterally in respect of the 50-mile limit. Let us remember that Icelandic fishermen were condemned for doing just that.—[Interruption.] It is no good members of the Scottish National Party shouting at me. They know nothing about fishing. If they will look at the history of the matter and at the facts, they will see that I am right. I believe that we must act internationally. If somebody else acts unilaterally, we must of course be prepared to take action.

Mr. James Johnson

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the common fisheries policy is in an almighty mess? Does he also agree that it was foisted upon us by the Conservative Government, who carried out no negotiations on this topic in the autumn of 1972? Is it not true that the Six then literally cooked up their fisheries policy in a few days before the treaty was signed? May we be assured that when my right hon. Friend returns after meeting his ministerial colleagues he will repeat the highly successful meeting which he had with the all-party fisheries committee in the House and that, indeed, we might have a seminar to give us some idea of what the common fisheries policy should be?

Mr. Peart

Of course I recognise the defects in this system, and my hon. Friend knows that I have said this publicly. This is why I believe that in the ongoing business of the Community we must seek to re-adapt it. This was what I said last week in the Council of Ministers at Luxembourg. I shall be only too pleased to arrange with my hon. Friend a further meeting of the all-party fisheries committee. We had a very good meeting on the last occasion.

Mr. Sproat

Does the Minister accept that all responsible parliamentarians will agree that we should not take unilateral action, but does he at the same time agree that if the Law of the Sea Conference breaks up without agreement and other countries act unilaterally, we must move to protect British interests? Will he confirm that he made it clear to the EEC Ministers that there will be no question of full access to our beaches after 1982 by all other EEC fishing vessels?

Mr. Peart

I agree entirely with the spirit of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. I made my point of view quite clear in the Community the other day. I said that we must not be caught napping—nor, indeed, must Europe, because, of course, Europe is a great consumer of fish. Those countries which may want to act unilaterally should be reminded that their markets could be affected if they take such silly action.