HC Deb 01 May 1975 vol 891 cc732-46
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will report on discussions at the Council of Agriculture Ministers in Brussels on 28th and 29th April. There was a preliminary but important discusion on the common agricultural policies stocktaking report produced by the Commission. It was generally recognised that the CAP had proved capable of adaptation to meet the needs of the enlarged Community in the difficult and changing conditions of the past two years. The changes in the beef régime are a case in point. But it was also clear that in taking stock of its policy the Community as a whole is concerned to achieve further developments and improvements. The task is both urgent and important, and it must be done thoroughly.

In the course of the discussion I took the opportunity to stress the particular problems of concern to the United Kingdom. I agreed with the Commission on the need to bring prices progressively into line with the needs of efficient farms and the market situation both inside and outside the Community. I also welcomed the Commission's recognition of the need for measures to avoid long-term surpluses and to give consumers the benefit of any unavoidable over-supply. I emphasised that direct aids could help to give flexibility in the operation of the CAP provided that they did not significantly distort competition. Finally, I stressed the need to encourage trade with third countries wherever this could be done without detriment to our own production within the Community—for example, in relation to strong wheat and lamb.

Commissioner Lardinois, in replying to the discussion, agreed that the CAP had become more flexible and could be further adapted to meet the needs of Member States and changing circumstances, given the political will. He pointed out that since enlargement, and primarily on British initiatives, the Community had already made progress in exploring new avenues and finding pragmatic solutions to its problems. It was agreed that detailed studies should be carried forward and that after discussion in the Assembly the Council should devote special attention to this work.

There was also a useful discussion in the Council on fishery problems in which I was supported by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. Agreement was reached on measures designed to improve the state of the market, which has been depressed by heavy stocks of frozen fish and until recently by unduly low-priced imports.

As regards stocks, Community aid is to be provided on a temporary basis for the private storage of frozen fish by producers and traders, so as to reduce the pressure on the market. Details will be announced shortly.

As regards imports of frozen fish, we have now secured for our fishermen a sensible additional measure of protection against unduly low-priced imports. Compared with the voluntary agreement with Norway, these arrangements provide permanent safeguards against low-priced imports from all third countries at prices which are broadly similar to those at present applied by Norway, and which constitute a fair balance between the interests of our producers and consumers. In consequence, effective remedial action can now be taken if import prices of frozen cod, haddock and other species fall below the minimum prices prescribed.

In the course of discussion I took the opportunity to recall the Council's earlier agreement on the need to be ready to adapt the common fisheries policy in response to developments in access to fishing grounds. I stressed particularly the important interest of the United Kingdom as the largest coastal fishery State in the Community. This is to be treated as a matter of urgency.

The Council also discussed measures governing the trade in fresh poultry meat and made some useful progress. It was agreed in principle that the ban on the use of spinchillers should be deferred pending further study from 1st January 1977 to 1st July 1978. Similarly the restriction of the New York dressed poultry trade to farm gate sales should be deferred for a further five years from February 1976 to August 1981. More time should also be allowed for adapting premises until August 1977, and introducing an inspection service, which will be in August 1979. It was also agreed in principle that our environmental health officers in the United Kingdom should be allowed to supervise cutting up and storage operations outside the slaughterhouse.

The Commission announced that national aids to offset the Increased cost of fuel in glasshouses may continue, but at a lower level, until June 1976. I shall need to see how far other member States take advantage of this.

The Commission also announced a proposal to assist structural reform through the demolition of obsolescent glasshouses. This will require detailed examination.

Finally, I am glad to say that the Council agreed to a further step in the relaxation of the restrictions on imports of beef from third countries. Provision has been made for the importation of 50,000 tons of beef between June and September, with the possibility of a further quantity later. I welcome this as a small step in the right direction. Liberalisation is important, but we have to rmember that our own market is already well supplied and we cannot let it become the outlet for surpluses from the rest of the world. This would invite a repetition of the market collapse of 1962. There is already provision for imports into the EEC under the GATT quota and from Botswana and Swaziland totalling nearly 60,000 tons.

Mr. Jopling

We are grateful to the Minister for telling us, so soon after his return from Brussels, about his meetings. It is significant that he should be making his statement on the day after the publication, of the Intervention Boards report, which states that in 1974 £112 million was paid to this country from FEOGA, which constitutes a third of the costs of farm support in this country.

We have noted what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the stocktaking documents both here and in his eulogy of the CAP in Brussels, published in the Press. We ask him to note that we have some reservations on this and that we should like a debate on this important stocktaking document before a final decision is taken.

We welcome the imposition of minimum import prices on fish from third countries. Would the Minister not agree that these prices are somewhat below the prices which were voluntarily agreed between this country and Norway? Is he aware that there is still continuing anxiety, in spite of this statement, among fishermen? Will he keep this matter under review and do what he can to meet the anxieties of fishermen? When he was in Brussels did he raise the important problem of overfishing in the North Sea and other areas around our coasts? Does he realise that large areas of water around this country are being scooped clean of fish by other countries, especially Russia?

Turning to poultry meat, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we remain concerned about the issue of New York dressed poultry? It is a pity that this could not have been scrapped altogether, rather than deferred until 1981.

We welcome the statement the Minister made on beef when he said that we cannot let our market become an outlet for surpluses from the rest of the world. However, did he sound warnings in Brussels that this could happen to our market in the poultry meat and egg sector? Is he aware that there has been a collapse today of the egg market, which is down by as much as 3p to 4p a dozen, and that the level of imported eggs into this country is now running at about 8 per cent. of the capacity of our packing stations?

Finally—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."]—the Minister made a long statement—is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we regard his statement about help for the glasshouse industry as being thoroughly lamentable? He has announced that oil subsidies may continue to be made until June 1976. Why does he not make an immediate statement that this subsidy will be implemented to help the British glasshouse industry now? Is it not true that he has personally held up his hand in the Council of Ministers to vote for the extension of this subsidy? Yet he has not been able to come here and say that the subsidy will be paid in this country. Why is it that he continues to preside over the collapse of our domestic glasshouse industry by not paying subsidies which the Commission allows him to pay?

Mr. Peart

Perhaps I can comment on what was a lengthy intervention—

Mr. Jopling

It was a long statement.

Mr. Peart

I made a positive statement. I have experience of this House, and I say only that it was a lengthy intervention. I shall try to answer it, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will listen.

On the question of stocktaking, I do not disagree with what the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) has said. The matter should be discussed as a separate issue, separate even from a general debate on agriculture. Speaking from memory, I believe that I shall have to appear before the Scrutiny Committee or some body of that kind. Apart from that, the document is here. If the hon. Member has any points, naturally they can be raised, but the document is a reasonable one and covers a whole range of problems. No doubt the hon. Member has seen it. It deals with the extension of the common market in agriculture, market stability and security of supply and reasonable Prices to consumers. It is a document which every hon. Member should study.

The question of a debate is a matter for the Leader of the House.

The hon. Member mentioned fish. On a previous occasion I spoke about over-fishing and conservation. I had bilateral talks with the Danish Minister when 1 was in Luxembourg and I pointed out the dangers of overfishing, for example, of herring. This had been brought to my notice by hon. Members of all parties in the all-party committee on fisheries. This meeting extracted a recognition from Commissioner Lardinois of the need to modify the fisheries policy as regards access and for the Community to take action if some other country acted unilaterally.

In addition, the new import regime is very satisfactory. It is true that here and there some of the prices are below what was agreed voluntary with Norway, but overall it will give adequate protection for the first time. I welcome that very much.

On the issue of New York dressed poultry, we can argue that this arrangement should be scrapped, but there are serious considerations here which affect health. We have had this restriction delayed to enable people to adjust their businesses accordingly. The previous Conservative administration also took this point of view. We have secured a further delay, and I should have thought that that would have been welcome.

On the subject of imports, I did not specifically deal with eggs at the meeting. I have raised the matter; we have had bilateral talks with the countries concerned. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has been very active on this matter. The hon. Member should appreciate that we also export eggs to other parts of the Community.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comprehensive report. I should like to ask him two brief questions. First, can he say specifically how far the Commission has taken into account the interests of the United Kingdom in the formulation of the stocktaking exercise?

Secondly, does my right hon. Friend have complete confidence that the beef regime will become a permanent feature of the common agricultural policy?

Mr. Peart

We were able to explain, not just at this meeting but at previous meetings, what we hoped would emerge out of this stocktaking exercise. I reported this to the House, and I repeat it now. National aids should be used. In the interests of the consumer, if there are to be any surpluses the Community should benefit from those surpluses. This is exemplified in the social beef scheme, which has benefited an important section of our community and has also taken meat off the market.

We also raised the problem of pricing with regard to the efficient form. In other words, a more flexible approach has been accepted. We argued about the need to consider traditional supplies from third countries, and note was taken of this. This will be a continuing discussion, and that is why I welcome being cross-examined further on this.

As for beef, I have said over and over again that I believe that the beef regime which we have obtained for our own country will more and more be regarded by some other countries as a very sensible arrangement which might suit their needs. I am determined that we shall keep our régime.

Mr. Kershaw

Is the Minister aware that, except for the part about horticulture, his statement is very satisfactory? Does it not underline the benefits to farmers, fishermen and consumers of our membership of the EEC?

Mr. Peart

Yes, I have come to that conclusion. I said as much at the Dispatch Box the last time I answered questions. I believe that the farmers can benefit, that we shall have adequate supplies and that in the long term British consumers will accept this situation. I repeat to those who still believe that we can get cheap food at subsidised prices from other countries that that day has gone and that they should recognise it.

Mr. Torrey

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the appalling situation under intervention whereby massive stocks of food are stored while developing countries face starvation? Is he also aware of the way in which these large stocks are sold to third countries at give-away prices, the balance being met by British and other Community taxpayers? Does he still agree, as he used to do, that this is wrong? Will he take steps in the unlikely event of our still being in the Common Market after 5th June to see that this policy is abolished from Common Market rules?

Mr. Peart

I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that I have always argued that permanent intervention was not the means of support that I wanted for British farmers. But that is not to say that I have always condemned intervention. My hon. Friend talks about stockpiling. The hungry world was very glad recently that the Americans had stockpiled their wheat and cereals—

Mr. Torney

That is not the Common Market.

Mr. Peart

That does not matter. In principle, I am not against intervention and support when it is necessary. My hon. Friend, who takes a keen interest in agriculture, should be well aware that we always have practised support and intervention in relation to some of our commodities. Potatoes are a classic example. We have buried them underground, dyed them and fed them for cattle food. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that what we have done is to say that we prefer another system as distinct from permanent intervention. There are bound to be fluctuations of supply and fluctuations in world trade, because agriculture cannot be put in a straitjacket, but I have said many times, and the Community agrees, that if we produce surpluses they should be for the benefit of people in the Community. As for aid to the developing world, the Community and Britian in the Community have a better record than any other part of the world.

Mr. Stephen Ross

I should like to congratulate the Minister on his statement and on the flexibility that he has shown in it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) would also particularly like to thank him for seeing the Danish Minister, which my right hon. Friend had requested him to do.

On horticulture, the Minister must be aware that there will be deep disappointment about his statement. It is not finance for obsolete glasshouses that we want but money to maintain all the new investment which has gone into horticul- ture in the last five years, encouraged by his Ministry. As the rest of the Common Market is already financing horticulturists, will he ensure that this is extended to this country as quickly as possible? There is no reference in the statement to credit facilities which apply in the Common Market. Why cannot they be extended here?

Mr. Peart

This did not come up at the meeting which I attended and on which I am reporting. I note what the hon. Gentleman has said about fishing. As for the glasshouse subsidy, that was originally only a temporary subsidy. We introduced it earlier than any other country in Europe and we provided more aid. As I have said, I will look at this matter to see how it is working and will find out the reactions of my colleagues.

Mr. Donald Stewart

May I express to the right hon. Gentleman the disappointment which will be felt in the fishing industry at the fact that there has still been no agreement on the present policy? Our fishermen's demand for extension of the limits is designed to ensure that the limits protect our own fisheries and do not allow the vessels of the Community within them as well. Does he not accept that there is no reason for Ministers to be coy with the EEC on this subject, since the fishing grounds are a United Kingdom asset and the EEC has nothing similar to offer?

Mr. Peart

I believe that what I have achieved on fishery matters in relation to import prices is what the industry wanted. When I met representatives of the Trawler Owners Federation, this is what they argued for. I accept that access is a matter to be considered sensibly. I have got the Community to accept the need to modify the access provisions of the common fisheries policy in the light of changes which are in prospect in international practice. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Law of the Sea Conference has been considering this. I should not want any country to act unilaterally. As I have said before, Iceland was condemned from both sides of the House when she acted unilaterally. This matter should be worked out sensibly and in co-operation.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Will my right hon. Friend assure us that in dealing with poultry there is a clear understanding that the environmental health officer's role will be protected both in the slaughterhouses and outside, to avoid the gross expansion and unnecessary increase in posts which would otherwise be involved?

Mr. Peart

I accept that, but there is a desire among many people—I used to be included in that category—for complete veterinary inspection. I recognise that our environmental health officers can be trained to do a specific job which fits in with our veterinary practice, so for that reason this is satisfactory.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

May I welcome the Minister's words about the stocktaking document? Would he not agree that the whole tenor of that document goes along with his own paper and that of the NFU about expansion of agriculture over the coming years and the steady supply of food for our consumers?

Would the right hon. Gentleman say a little more about the subject of horticultural glasshouses? It seems extraordinary that he should vote in the Council of Ministers for the extension of the subsidy of one third of the difference between September and now, yet not introduce it here. Would he confirm that the imports of 50,000 tons of beef into the Community can be done only by importers who export the same amount of fresh meat outside the Community and that there is a further 100,000 head of young stock permitted to be imported into the Community at the same time?

Mr. Peart

Yes, although the figure is 67,000 head of young cattle between June and September. I was prepared to go along with this, since it seemed sensible. I have nothing more to add on the subject of glasshouse aids. I accept that one is in a difficulty here. I cannot object to countries using national aids when I have argued for them for the British industry. This may be called into question, but I have said that I will see how it works. I cannot go on repeating what I have said so often, that what we gave initially and what was accepted was a far better arrangement than has been received by any other country in the EEC.

On the stocktaking document, I agree that it follows basically the principles that we put forward in our long-term approach in the White Paper and that it conforms also to what our own farmers said in their document that they wanted. The stocktaking document is important. I hope that hon. Members interested in these matters will read it carefully. I know that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) has done so.

Mr. Doig

The Minister made no mention of hill farmers in his lengthy statement. Many Scottish hill farmers are having a hard struggle to survive. They work very hard and very long hours. Will he consider giving them much more assistance?

Mr. Peart

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sorry that I did not mention this matter. The Council agreed on a Community contribution of 25 per cent. towards aid for the hill areas. We had debated this previously, and that was the figure which was then discussed. We agreed on that figure, then the position of the German Government had to be considered and we had a reassessment the other day. But the figures remains 25 per cent. This will be a useful change. I do not know why it should be condemned. The simple fact is that this will he the aid that we want for our hill and upland areas.

Mr. Charles Morrison

The right hon. Gentleman cannot pretend that the problems of the glasshouse growers are matters of no consequence. What further evidence does the right hon. Gentleman require that they are in difficulty, given that he has been given endless evidence over the past few months?

Mr. Peart

I am not saying that they are matters of no consequence. We must regard the horticulture industry as an important producer of food for the nation. I merely said that we gave more aid initially than any other country. A decision has been made which I have reported to the House, and I shall have to look at the matter carefully.

Mr. English

Will my right hon. Friend comment upon the report that appeared, I think, in the Guardian of a week last Friday that some of the surplus beef has been sold to Russia? If that is true, does he think that the Russians will do what they did with the subsidised butter—namely, sell it on at a profit to other countries?

Mr. Peart

If people buy beef and commercial arrangements are made there is nothing to stop them trading. I see nothing to condemn in that. If there are surpluses in the Community and if if we can eat more beef in the Community, that is all to the good. Inevitably the agricultural trade is world-wide and we are seeking to liberalise it.

Mr. Kimball

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that perhaps the most encouraging part of the statement is his mention of flexibility in the future approach to the common agricultural policy? Is he aware that many of us feel that production grants have a part to play, particularly in view of the fact that the arguments against the stocktaking document are both conflicting and inconclusive?

Mr. Peart

May I say how right the hon. Gentleman is. I believe that flexibility is important, and we have always stressed that. Producer grants are vital. Many people used to argue that they would distort competition. They were not as well blessed with them in the Community as we were in this country. I believe that the stocktaking document shows that we have made considerable progress over the past 12 months in the Community. I hope that some of my hon. Friends who take a different point of view will study the document carefully before they become really carping critics.

Mr. Spearing

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there is no change to the basic mechanism of the common agricultural policy? If there is, will he tell us what it is? When the Council next meets will my right hon. Friend consider the Community's tobacco-growing grant. which I understand will be about £50 million or more in the current year?

Mr. Peart

I am rather surprised that my hon. Friend says that we have not made changes—

Mr. Spearing

No change to the basic mechanism.

Mr. Peart

Let me give my hon. Friend one example. I obtained what is a deficiency payment system for beef—namely, the variable premium. I accept that it will be examined every year. I have stated publicly, and I have stated at the Council, that we believe that this will continue to be the method of support in this country if it suits our needs.

Added to that, we have obtained recognition of the principle that national aid should be given. If my hon. Friend goes through our party document, most of which I wrote, he will soon see that what is in the document has been achieved. We have said repeatedly that permanent intervention is not the only means of support. That is why we have the variable premium. We have also obtained better access for third countries. New Zealand and Canada have praised our efforts. The Caribbean countries have praised our efforts on sugar. The Lomé Convention has provided a better deal than was ever thought possible. My hon. Friends should not conduct a dialogue of the deaf. They should recognise that we have achieved a great deal.

Mr. Ralph Howell

May I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on becoming such a first-class European in such a short time? I welcome his statement, with the exception of his failure to help the glasshouse industry. The fact that we were doing more to help the industry in the past would have been a first-class argument, I would have thought, for continuing to give assistance. It is pointless to help the industry and then to leave it suspended for six months between December and June when help has been given generally in the EEC. Did the right hon. Gentleman discuss with Commissioner Lardinois the plight of milk producers? Unless something is done to help them in the autumn there will be a desperate shortage of milk in this country.

Mr. Peart

I did not deal specifically with milk in Brussels. The hon. Gentleman must be aware that the milk producers have had two good awards. I have had representations made to me and they will be considered carefully in the light of our agricultural expansion plan. I have said repeatedly that more beef should be produced from the dairy herd. I have never been anti-European. I was sceptical about the CAP and I expressed that scepticism in the House, but, having seen how the CAP works, and having obtained the improvements that I have mentioned, I believe that any man who is honest with himself will accept my conclusion.

Mr. James Johnson

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, and particularly as he has gained minimum prices for cod and haddock for fishermen who have been in sore difficulties. I ask my right hon. Friend two short questions. First, does he think that it is a superstitious myth to talk about a fish mountain when we have had over 100,000 tons of fish—mainly cod and haddock—piled away in our stores for the past 12 months? Secondly, is he thoroughly satisfied that the measures which he has taken will be an adequate protection for our fishing industry?

Mr. Pearl

I believe that there is no fish mountain. Frozen fish will always find a market when the demand is present. That has been the practice over the years. My hon. Friend represents with distinction a fishing port and he knows that from his knowledge of the industry. He need not worry about that. What I have negotiated and what has been accepted by the Community means that we have to strengthen our position in the world. We are now in a position where action can be taken by a large market. That gives us a tremendous power to prevent any people outside the Community from seeking to distort our own market by unfair competition. My right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) may smile, but he lives in Battersea. This is a matter that affects fish consumers, too. People everywhere like fish and chips, and there is nothing wrong with that.

This is a very serious matter and it is important that we should afford some measure of protection to our producers. It is a matter of securing the right balance between producer and consumer, and I believe that that is what I have done.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

We have already had 32 minutes on the statement. I am afraid that I must call the last question. Mr. Blaker.

Mr. Blaker

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it was observed on this side of the House that when he answered my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) the one question he did not deal with was that about the glasshouse sector? That omission was taken by myself and my hon. Friends to be an indication that he was preparing to drag his feet. Does the right hon. Gentleman recall his hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary saying in answer to me last week that it was unlikely that the Government would be paying a subsidy from June onwards as it was not paying one now? In the light of what the right hon. Gentleman has said today, may we take it that that answer no longer applies and that he will consider this whole question again with a sympathetic attitude?

Mr. Peart

I do not think I can say that. What my hon. Friend said last week was quite right. I have nothing more to add today. I have stated my position already. I know that this is a matter about which the hon. Gentleman has genuine feelings. No doubt he will be pursuing the matter. We always consider an hon. Member's argument. I think that my hon. Friend's reply was entirely right and correct.