HC Deb 20 March 1975 vol 888 cc1835-40
8. Mr. Lawson

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what response he gave to the National Farmers' Union delegation which came to the House of Commons on 6th March to ask him to protect British egg producers from unfair competition from subsidised French imports; and whether he will make a statement.

22. Mr. Hardy

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has recently met representatives of Great Britain's egg producers.

23. Mr. Beith

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what discussions he has now had with the French Minister of Agriculture about egg imports.

27. Mr. MacGregor

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, while the question of French egg imports remains under consideration, whether he will take interim action to protect the domestic egg market.

Mr. Bishop

I am afraid that my reply will be rather lengthy, Mr. Speaker, since I am answering four Questions together.

We have looked very carefully at the case for controlling the imports of eggs into this country in the context of Community legislation and the production position in the United Kingdom. First, the evidence we have so far received does not justify a unilateral embargo. We are seeking more facts from producer organisations in support of their claim that a ban can be justified. Second, we shall also want to discuss with them future prospects for egg production in this country. Third, we have taken action towards obtaining early agreement to prohibit the use in this country of arsenicals in feeding stuffs for laying birds. We would then be able to sell our eggs in the French market where the use of arsenicals is already prohibited. Fourth, we have also arranged talks with the French Government about the detailed implementation of the EEC marketing regulations.

In the last few days the French Government have taken further steps to reduce over-production of eggs. This action could help to restore a balance in the egg market. The EEC Commission has been informed and is examining the details of the arrangements. We are also in continuing contact with the French Government about these new steps. The market has firmed in recent weeks and producers should also be helped by the recent reduction in feed prices.

Mr. Lawson

I welcome that lengthy answer. Is the Minister aware that this is still wholly unsatisfactory for British egg producers, who are suffering serious losses—some are on the verge of bankruptcy—because of the imports of subsidised eggs? Is he also aware that there is considerable evidence that these subsidised French imports are coming in in contravention of Article 46 of the Treaty of Rome and that many of them seem to have been passed off as English eggs in contravention of the EEC labelling regulations? While he is conducting this thorough investigation, would it not be better if he put at least a temporary ban on the importation of French eggs now until he is satisfied that the position has been regularised?

Mr. Bishop

I concede the quantity of my reply but I hope that hon. Members will recognise its quality as well. On the point about labelling and the marketing regulations, regular checks are made at ports to ensure that boxes of eggs imported from other member States and elsewhere are properly labelled and marked. Quality checks take place at ports and other points on the distribution chain, and with one exception our inspectors have found only minor infringements. These are important matters and we are very much involved in the inspections that are made.

Mr. Hardy

Will my hon. Friend confirm that there are grounds for suspicion that the price of French eggs in this country is below the cost of production? Will he also confirm that fewer French eggs have been imported in the first two months of this year than in the similar period in each of the previous two or three years and that the then Conservative administration were completely unconcerned about it, so that the noise now emanating from the Opposition benches is neither justified nor genuine?

Mr. Bishop

I appreciate my hon. Friend's comments. I have spent a considerable time on this in negotiations with the Eggs Authority and with the NFU, as has my right hon. Friend. We have been in touch with the position in Brussels. As for an anti-dumping scheme, I believe that the French eggs are not being dumped, according to the available definition. The Eggs Authority itself has also made a recent state- ment accepting that the evidence on prices which it has collected might not sustain an anti-dumping application.

Mr. Beith

I thank the Minister for his detailed reply. Will he accept that there will be bitter disappointment in an industry which is near to despair that discussions with the French Government have not yet taken place and have only just been arranged? Does he not recognise that he could be taking legal proceedings against the French Government in respect of the hidden subsidy in contravention of Article 46 of the Treaty of Rome?

Mr. Bishop

We have gone into this thoroughly in regard to the legislation available, and it is not so easy to prove some of the allegations which have been made. Some of the people who have been making these allegations are now considering whether they can justify the action that the hon. Gentleman has suggested.

Mr. Spearing

Does my hon. Friend recall that yesterday, in a Written Answer which appears in column 440 of the Official Report, his right hon. Friend showed that the amount of subsidy paid through compensatory amounts for 1974 was no less than £275,000? Can he now tell us what is the estimate for this year? Why are these compensatory amounts paid to French producers in order to reduce the price below production costs in this country?

Mr. Bishop

I think that my hon. Friend is referring to the equalisation fund, which covers only about 20 per cent. of production. Producers pay a levy when the market is relatively strong and receive payments when it is relatively weak—a kind of insurance policy. There is nothing in the way it works to prevent producers from seeking the best possible prices from the market. The Eggs Authority has said publicly that it has no evidence which could prove that the fund is contrary to EEC legislation.

Mr. Hastings

Has the Minister heard reports that large consignments of these French eggs are getting in at our ports at weekends when inspection arrangements are far from adequate? Will he look at this aspect?

Mr. Bishop

We are always pleased to look into any allegations made by hon. Members, but we have made a close check and with one exception there have been only minor infringements. In that one case we sent the eggs back to France and warned about the inspection measures which we would pursue in future.

Mr. Skinner

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a rather sad commentary on the two years or so that we have been in the Common Market that even now, despite all the renegotiations and the attempts to make the Common Market and the common agricultural policy flexible, we are still in the ridiculous situation of not being able to keep out French subsidised eggs? Is not the real answer to the problems the one which was described by his right hon. Friend, by himself and by Ministers generally—namely, that there was no future for Britain or for British producers in this country staying in the Common Market? If my hon. Friend has time to reflect on this matter over the weekend, perhaps he will have a look at the anti-Market motion and sign it and get his right hon. Friend to sign it too.

Mr. Bishop

Regardless of whether one is in the Market or not, there are international rules like GATT which have to be obeyed. On the latter point my hon. Friend must draw his own conclusions, but we on this Bench will continue to give the facts, which hon. Members may use as they wish.

Mr. Pym

Although we are glad that the Government are now having discussions with the French Government—albeit perhaps belatedly—what about the evidence which seems to have come to light now that the French Government are making a considerable extra sum available to the poultry industry, which includes eggs? Should not this be pursued urgently? What steps have the Government taken to raise it with the Community? This matter affects intra-Community trade and, therefore, the Commission has a responsibility. What approaches have the Government made in that direction?

Mr. Bishop

I appreciate the right on. Gentleman's interest. I am aware of his visit to Brussels on this and other matters. However, M. Lardinois has denied reports that he had said that we could act to stop imports from France. The position is still being reviewed with the authorities in Europe with which we are concerned and also with M. Lardinois himself.