HC Deb 19 May 1976 vol 911 cc1430-40
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)

The Council of Ministers (Agriculture) met in Brussels on 17th–18th May. It is right that I should make a short statement to the House on what happened.

We had a further discussion of the quantities of New Zealand butter to be imported into the United Kingdom during the years 1978 to 1980 under Protocol 18 and in conformity with the Dublin Declaration. Some member countries saw difficulty in guaranteeing access for fixed quantities without providing for review in the event of a decline in the total size of the United Kingdom butter market.

In an attempt to meet this concern, while still affording New Zealand a firm guarantee of access for fixed quantities, the Commission put forward a new proposal during the meeting. This would give New Zealand a firm assurance that fixed quantities of her butter would find a market here, but it would provide for part of these quantities to be sold for the manufacture of other foods rather than for retail distribution if our retail market declined in size.

I neither accepted nor rejected this proposal in principle. It was clearly necessary to have the details and consider them with New Zealand before any decision could be taken. The Commission will provide full details of its new proposal as soon as possible, and the Council will seek to reach final decisions at its meeting on 21st–22nd June.

The Council dealt with four other matters of particular interest to this country. First, it heard a report from Mr. Lardinois of the progress of the Commission's discussions with ACP sugar producers on the guaranteed price for the coming sugar year. These are to be resumed in the near future, and it is my belief that agreement can be reached on terms that are fair to the ACP countries and to our own refiners and consumers.

Secondly, it was agreed to allow Botswana to send an additional 1,500 tons of beef to the Community under the ACP arrangements before 30th June, so as to meet difficulties presented by the seasonality of her production. Thirdly, it was agreed to try to adopt before August interim measures for the improvement of intra-Community trade in sheepmeat.

Finally, it was decided to extend the present suspension of the common customs tariff on new potatoes until 31st May, when the supply situation on this market should have improved.

Mr. Jopling

I thank the Minister for his statement. Is he aware of the highly unsatisfactory debate in the House on butter on Monday night? Leaving aside whether any blame is due either to his Department or to the Commission, will the right lion. Gentleman himself take steps to improve communications so that this intolerable situation does not occur again?

Is the Minister aware that we welcome his efforts to secure a fair deal with New Zealand for butter, in accordance with the arrangements made by the previous Government under Protocol 18 and the Labour Government's Dublin Declaration? Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that nothing has recently happened to make him feel that the spirit of those agreements cannot be put into practice in the future, and that the reported delaying tactics by some of his colleagues on the Council are a matter of manoeuvre rather than principle?

Is the Minister aware that we support his efforts to get a fair deal on sugar for the ACP countries and United Kingdom interests? We also support the decision to continue the suspension of the tariff on new potatoes, which we hope will help to bring down the price of potatoes.

Does not the Minister on reflection feel that it might be wiser to go more slowly in establishing a sheepmeat régime as the common agricultural policy is finding it difficult enough to meet its present commitments? Is this not a bad time to establish that régime in view of its implication of higher lamb prices for the housewife and the danger of falling demand which will affect domestic producers?

Mr. Peart

On the question of links and discussions about what is happening in the Community, the hon. Gentleman knows, and the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee will confirm, that I have always been willing to appear before the Scrutiny Committee with my officials, and I have always taken the view that we should inform the House about what is happening. If the hon. Gentleman has any positive suggestions to make for improving communications, I shall listen to him.

I should have thought that the Opposition, who I thought were rather soft regarding New Zealand during their negotiations, would welcome what I have done.

Mr. Marten


Mr. Peart

It is no good saying "Rubbish". I have had many discussions with the new Zealand Government, and I have always been a great defender of New Zealand. Some people think that I am half Kiwi. I shall do all I can to defend New Zealand. I have been in close contact with the New Zealand Government throughout the discussions. Yesterday the New Zealand Ambassador was in Brussels and I had consultations with him. I assured the New Zealand Prime Minister that we would do all we could, and New Zealand appreciates the action that we have taken. No commitment has been made, and we shall discuss details later.

We have secured a fair deal on sugar. We got that at the Lomé Convention. The present talks are still in progress. There was not, as some people suggested, a breakdown in the talks; they were only postponed. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten), who snorted strangely, must realise that talks are postponed from time to time. The talks are going on. I hope that hon. Members will be sensible about this. We want a fair deal for the Lomé Convention countries and for our refiners and consumers.

I am glad that the extension of the suspension of the tariff on new potatoes is welcomed.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the sheepmeat regime. Our position is well known. We shall not agree to any Community arrangements which do not meet the interests of our consumers and producers. I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.

Mr. Torney

I thank my right hon. Friend for his valiant defence of New Zealand butter, but is not British butter now being placed into intervention? If it is, will my right hon. Friend say how much is being placed into intervention? Would it not be far more sensible to use our home-produced butter rather than spend our vital foreign currency on importing Continental butter? If there is a fall in the consumption of the butter in this country, is it not because the Common Market policy forces up the price? if the Common Market gets its disorganised hands on the sheep market, can we look forward to great sheep mountains just as we have experienced and are experiencing beef mountains?

Mr. Peart

There are people in this country who say that we should not import even New Zealand butter. My hon. Friend is wrong to raise the issue of the common agricultural policy when we are talking about New Zealand. It is recognised that we have traditional links with New Zealand, and I do not want to jeopardise the negotiations. I know that my hon. Friend has a certain point of view on the CAP, and we can argue about that, but please let us not fight battles which have been lost. We are in the Community and we have to make the best of the Community.

Mr. Powell

In view of the fact that the Commission document which was initially before the Council did not contain the proposed quotas but was blank, and in view of the fact that the further document from the Commission is still in need of some details, as the right hon. Gentleman said in his statement, is he of the opinion that the proposals from the Commission within the meaning of Protocol 18, Article 5.2, have yet been before the Council at any stage?

Mr. Peart

Yes, I have taken part in several discussions about this and I have stressed what was decided at the Dublin summit meeting. I accept that this matter has not been publicly debated as it should have been. I have discussed quantities, but I do not want to prejudice any future discussions by stating quantities at this date. What was declared at Dublin still stands.

Mr. Buchan

Is my right hon. Friend aware that two nights ago, when his hon. Friend was being pressed to ask him to delay a decision until the will of the House was known, we were informed that we had to make a decision at that time in the interests of the New Zealand Government? I hope he will look at that.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I welcome the fact that he delayed an agreement over butter, but will he keep in mind that our real task is to secure the continuing quantities of butter from New Zealand and to cut the levy? Does he agree that it is not a satisfactory solution that that should be shunted on to the manufacturing industry? Should it not be grappled with at the point of entry on the prices question? Is it not deplorable that the offer made on sugar is less than 2 per cent. in view of the costs over the past 12 months?

Mr. Peart

I do not want to say anything about sugar because negotiations are still continuing. We should await the outcome of those negotiations. I know what it is like because I once conducted them myself. The ACP countries have had a pretty good deal. I know their worries, because I have discussed the matter with them, but I would rather not prejudice negotiations which are still continuing.

If I could have negotiated a good deal for New Zealand yesterday after long talks and after pressing for that, I think that the House would have agreed with me, despite the view of the Scrutiny Committee. We should certainly take note of the Committee's views, but it would be absurd if a Minister was shackled to such an extent that he had to turn down a good deal.

Mr. John Davies

Is the Minister aware that I willingly accept that he talks to the Scrutiny Committee with his usual frankness and charm? His statement highlights the anxieties of the House. Does he agree that after discussions within the Council the Commission produced a totally new proposal? The whole object is that the House should be able to influence the Minister before he has discussions, and not afterwards. Does he agree that the process of working within the Agriculture Ministers' Council denies the House that opportunity? There is something wrong with that procedure and I hope that the Minister will try to rectify this defect

Mr. Peart

I agree that there are problems about how we can improve our scrutiny and surveillance of what happens in the CAP. That is why I am always willing to report to the House after I have been there. A new proposal was made by Commissioner Lardinois. I said that I was prepared to examine it but I refused to commit myself because I wanted to have talks with New Zealand. [HON. MEMBERS: "And the House."] I am a House of Commons man just as much as my hon. Friends. I am always prepared to come to the House, as I have done today, to explain what has happened. I shall attend the Scrutiny Committee at any time, as my hon. Friends know.

Of course the House should be informed but, on the other hand, if one is negotiating, as one does in the case of the price review for our own farmers, it is important that one should not be shackled by the different views expressed by some of my hon. Friends and others. One waits until the issue is decided and then one discusses it. I shall always try to keep the House informed.

Mr. Roper

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Commission now operates a procedure whereby it can withdraw and resubmit proposals within a single meeting of the Council for rediscussion and agreement at that same meeting? What was it in the Commission's final proposal which led the New Zealand Government to recall their Ambassador from Brussels?

Mr. Peart

The New Zealand Government are anxious to know where they stand. I met the Ambassador immediately after the talks. They were well aware of the position. It was a new proposal and the Ambassador rightly did not want to commit himself until he knew the feelings of his Government. There was nothing wrong with that.

Mr. Rippon

Will the Minister bear in mind that Protocol 18 was negotiated for the benefit of New Zealand and that, because of the special wording of Article 5.2, there are opportunities for careful consideration? May we have an assurance that the Government will not enter into any agreement in Brussels until it has the approval of the New Zealand Government?

Mr. Peart

I accept that. That is the right approach to the negotiations, not just on butter. I have been continually in touch with New Zealand, as the High Commissioner will confirm, and I am proud to say that New Zealand Ministers have paid tribute to what I have done. I give the assurance sought by the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Pavitt

Is the Minister aware that he was my leader in these matters and that he taught me a lot? When he is negotiating on New Zealand butter and on sugar, will he ensure that we do not go back on any of the assurances that the House and the country have given? How much beef will have to be put into cold storage to keep up the price in this country?

Mr. Peart

On our negotiations with ACP countries, the Lomé Convention was an outstanding achievement and was the result of hard negotiations. It has been reported to the House and accepted. I do not need to repeat my own defences of New Zealand.

For beef I negotiated what is called the variable premium system, which is similar to our deficiency payment system. But there is still a safety net whereby beef could go into intervention. I have already taken decisions to prevent some beef going into intervention because I thought that it would spoil the market. The system is working.

Mr. Hooson

Does the Minister agree that the mechanism for delaying a decision, which he adopted yesterday, is a desirable precedent for this type of case because it enables the House to express its views and it gives time for further consultation? Will he regard it as a precedent? On sheepmeat, is it intended to allow proposals to come only from the Commission or will the Government put forward a proposal of their own? If so, will there be any discussion in the House before a decision is made?

Mr. Peart

In some ways it is a precedent, but there may be occasions when it is not valid. Last night, for instance, if I thought that I had been getting my way on a good settlement for New Zealand, I would have negotiated it. I would have done that despite what the Scrutiny Committee said and I think that the House would have agreed with me. If I had delayed a decision which was favourable to New Zealand, I would have paved the way for New Zealand to be let down later. In such circumstances the Minister must judge and the House must censure me if I am wrong. Whilst it may be regarded as a precedent, there are circumstances when a Minister must make a decision if he thinks that would be in the interests of the country. I hope that I would have the courage to do that.

I shall leave the situation on sheep-meat as it is. The Irish and the French have their own problems. But I shall look at it carefully, and I think that what I said to the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) should satisfy hon. Members.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Is there any real desire among the Governments of the Community, apart from perhaps the French and the Irish, to have a managed market in sheepmeat, or is this just another of Commissioner Lardinois' idiosyncrasies?

Mr. Peart

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head: the French and the Irish want a sheepmeat régime. We also have an interest in that because we export a great deal of sheep and lamb to the Continent.

Mr. Welsh

Will the Minister do all in his power to ensure reasonable access for Scottish sheep producers to European markets? In particular, will he try to stop the disruptive, violent closure of the French markets?

Mr. Peart

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Hon. Members on both sides of the House must appreciate that we also benefit by having access to the Community for some of our agricultural exports, which I hope we shall step up. I shall do all I can to protect them.

Mr. Leadbitter

The delaying process which my right hon. Friend used yesterday may well be a precedent, but is he aware that the fixed quantities proposed for New Zealand butter coming to this country are not known to the House, that the new proposals of the Council for butter are not known to the House, that the intervention price effect on home-produced butter is not known to the House and that, therefore, the House is, as usual, unable to influence the Government?

Mr. Peart

I hope that my hon. Friend will not exaggerate. [Interruption.] He is wrong. The quantities are in the protocol. He will see it if he goes to the Vote Office, where he will be informed. The Commission's recommendation in August 1975 was that quantities from 1978 to 1980 should be 129,000 tonnes, 121.000 tonnes and 113,000 tonnes. I hope that my hon. Friend will not exaggerate. I know him so well.

Mr. Marten

When the debate was almost concluded at 2 a.m. on Tuesday, the House was demanding to know what message would be sent from the House to the Minister at Brussels. Can he tell us what message he received? Secondly, on the question of quantities of butter, why does the right hon. Gentleman not tell us what the new proposals are? Tomorrow morning they will be in the Financial Times, which will he extremely accurate. Why is the right hon. Gentleman so confident that the new terms for sugar will be acceptable? What are they? I say to him "Tell us. Do not be ashamed."

Mr. Peart

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that even at 2 o'clock in the morning I was aware of what was happening here. [Interruption.] I was twice in Brussels. My Department—

Mr. Peter Mills

Keeps in touch.

Mr. Peart

That is a good phrase.

I shall do all I can to protect the interests of New Zealand. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Financial Times. That is a very good paper and I hope that he reads it more. It gives very objective coverage. I believe that when we are negotiating with the ACP countries it will be our aim to help the Community to secure a good deal for them.

Mr. Spearing

My right hon. Friend has referred to negotiation. Does he agree that the matter is something more than that in that it is the fulfilment of the Dublin renegotiated terms, which gave New Zealand at least 375,000 tonnes over three years? Can the House come to the interpretation that the offer is less than that? Will my right hon. Friend confirm the figures given in the Press and say whether the new figures, which we do not know, have an element of regressivity in them, which was a matter of some discussion in Dublin?

On sugar, does my right hon. Friend agree that the price is an important matter not only for the suppliers but for the long-term continuation of the cane sugar refining industry in this country?

Mr. Peart

I entirely agree. I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in the matter and places importance on our refineries and the protection of the cane sugar industry, even though we shall expand part of our sugar beet industry. But the Lomé Convention exists. We have guaranteed the producers access, but some of them do not fulfil their quota. That is another matter. I believe that, generally speaking, what will emerge will be reasonable and sensible. I cannot go beyond that, because talks are still going on and hard decisions will have to be taken.

On New Zealand, I agree with my hon. Friend that we must carry out what was agreed at the Dublin Heads of State conference. I have stressed that over and over again. I gave figures just now. The Government say, and I am sure that the Opposition leaders agree, that we must secure a good deal for New Zealand in conformity with the principles agreed at the Dublin summit.

Mr. W. E. Garrett

I am glad, Mr. Speaker, that my dogged persistence eventually led to my catching your eye. Will my right hon. Friend accept my assurance that I have always believed in his integrity with regard to New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries? But will he tell the House, especially his pro-European colleagues and particularly the most enthusiastic ones, what benefit there will be to people such as my wife who will ultimately have to pay the price?

Mr. Spearing

Higher prices.

Mr. Peart

Let me answer. I am. tempted to say something, but perhaps I should not. All our wives shop. Support for our entry into the Community was not an easy decision for me to take, in view of my previous views, but I say to my hon. Friend and others that a man who cannot face facts is a fool. The reality is to be seen. I believe that our entry into the Community enables Britain to shape and change things, and that is happening. An example is the stocktaking document. As for the continuity of supplies, there is no cheap food anywhere in the world now.