HC Deb 16 February 1977 vol 926 cc508-18
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Silkin)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall report to the House on the meeting of the Council of Ministers (Agriculture) on 14th and 15th February 1977. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary led the United Kingdom delegation.

The Council agreed on a Community regulation on fisheries conservation, subject only to a reservation by the Danish Minister, which I hope he will be able to withdraw in the next few days.

As I have frequently explained to the House, it is vital that we retain the right to introduce national conservation measures in our sovereign waters as a safeguard, should the Community fail to act effectively to preserve fish stocks. I am pleased to tell the House that our right to do this has been restated in a Community regulation.

Among the other provisions of this regulation are a ban on North Sea herring fishing during March and April and a review of the situation thereafter, an immediate reduction in the allowable by-catch of protected species taken in industrial fishing from 25 per cent. to 20 per cent. and a further reduction to 15 per cent. at the beginning of 1978, agreement that the Commission will make proposals on the rules governing mesh sizes by mid-March, and the establishment of a closed area for the fishing of Norway pout in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland from 21st February until 31st March. The latter will help to protect valuable stocks of immature white fish, particularly haddock and whiting, which are otherwise at risk.

Our concern at the earlier failure to reach agreement on an effective EEC conservation measure in this area led the Government to place an order before the House last week creating a closed area for Norway pout fishing. The Council has now agreed, subject to the withdrawal of the Danish reservation, to the boundaries we proposed for the closed area. The Commission will make proposals on the basis of scientific studies on further Community action from 1st August. The agreement on conservation represents a major advance since the Community has accepted the need for the measures for which we have pressed; and the right to take national action, if necessary, has been retained.

My hon. Friend again raised in the Council the need for Community action to correct the present unfair method of calculating pigmeat monetary compensatory amounts. The Commission is considering this, and I hope that an early solution can be found.

Mr. Gundelach presented to the Council the Commission's proposals on agricultural prices for 1977–78. The Commission proposes an average increase in Community support prices in units of account of about 3 per cent. and for changes in green currencies, including a devaluation of the green pound reducing the sterling monetary compensatory amounts by 8 percentage points.

My hon. Friend made the United Kingdom's position clear. It is essential that the settlement contributes to food price restraint and to the reduction of structural surpluses. We, therefore, found it hard to justify any price increase for products in structural surplus, in particular milk.

On the green pound my hon. Friend once again made clear the Government's position that any change would be made only in the overall national interest.

The discussion on the prices proposals was very much a preliminary one and will be resumed at the next Agriculture Council on 14th-15th March.

The Council also agreed to extend the suspension of the common customs tariff on new potatoes until 31st March and on maincrop until 15th April. This will help to keep down shop prices.

Mr. Peyton

The right hon. Gentleman has made an important and welcome statement on fisheries. His hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is much to be congratulated on having brought home with him a useful agreement. I am in no way qualifying what I said when I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity to acknowledge the understanding shown by other members of the Community of the real concern that this country feels on these issues.

May I raise two points on fisheries? What point have we now reached on the question of the 50-mile limit? Secondly, I am concerned about enforcement. The more we go into details on this matter over the greatly extended areas with which we are now dealing, the more enforcement seems to me to be a very complicated and difficult problem which is much easier to talk about than to achieve.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the green pound. Am I right in thinking that he is slightly changing his posture here? Secondly, on the pigmeat mcas, will he acknowledge the present unfair method of calculation? I have asked the Minister this question before. Am I not right in thinking that he could have secured a revision of this unfair method had he agreed to a marginal devaluation of the green pound three or four months ago?

Mr. Silkin

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) for his initial remark on fisheries. My hon. Friend and I tried to build on the work which was started by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, and we did so in the knowledge that we have— and I have not hesitated to make this point in Brussels—the whole House with us on this question.

As I have told the House before, the question of the 50-mile limit is not germane to the immediate question of the necessary conservation measures to be taken in February. But we have not lost sight of that limit. We have these initial conservation measures, and I hope that they will be followed up by others. They are only a start, and we can now direct ourselves to the other important question which the right hon. Gentleman raised.

Enforcement will be difficult. I acknowledge that from the start. I think that I acknowledged it when we were passing the Fishery Limits Bill. That does not mean that it should not be done, however. There is an almost unique historic development in that the Soviet Government have sent representatives to Brussels to negotiate. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be taking his part in those negotiations.

I turn now to the green pound. I am not quite sure that posture is the right word to use, but if it is, my posture has been exactly the same since my maiden speech as Minister of Agriculture on 22nd October last year, as the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym), who heard the speech, God help him, and who is present now, can corroborate. I said then that there was nothing mystical about the green pound. I do not say that it is good or bad, simply that it exists. Since it exists it must be used in the national interest. That remains my position.

When my hon. Friend made the point about the pigmeat mcas in the Council chamber yesterday he was supported by the French and Irish delegates. He did not stand alone on this issue. The pigmeat mcas are based on a total miscalculation. It may be true that had I given way on the green pound I might have got the Council at that stage to be generous in the fair recalculation of mcas. Equally, if I had perhaps offered the Council the Crown jewels it would also have done so. However, this is a fair and equitable change that we are suggesting, and we intend to abide by it.

Mr. Jay

In congratulating my right hon. Friend on the firm attitude that he is taking on these crucial matters, may I ask him to reaffirm his basic assurance that until we have a real reform of the CAP involving lower prices he will not agree to a devaluation of the green pound?

Mr. Silkin

The assurance that I will give my right hon. Friend—and I am not evading the question because this is obviously one of the facts to be considered—is that I believe that we have a strong position on the green pound, and that that is, in the way that these things are, a negotiable instrument. I shall wait to see what I am offered for it.

Mr. Powell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his care to preserve in formula and in deed our right to protect our own sovereign waters is both noted and widely appreciated? Will he use the same methods when he comes to the renegotiation of the common fisheries policy in order to secure what the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) calls the understanding of our partners in the Community?

Mr. Silkin

The right hon. Gentleman once gave me the excellent advice that every house had both a front door and a back door. The wise negotiator uses both.

Mr. James Johnson

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the proposition that if we were to continue to allow nations like the Danes to undertake industrial fishing as they were doing there would be no fish left for our own fishermen in our own waters? Hence, although no one would dub my right hon. Friend a chauvinist, is he aware that we applaud his nationalist stand on behalf of our own people, and that if he can continue in that we shall be very happy indeed?

Mr. Silkin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. If there were enough fish for everyone in the world there would be no argument. We start with the basic necessity of conserving fish stocks in our sovereign waters.

Mr. Geraint Howells

I should like to congratulate the Minister on being able to persuade the other Council Ministers that there is a need to conserve our fishing industry and a need for measures to that end for this country. I am delighted that he was able to do that.

Will he give an assurance to the pig producers in this country that the mcas will be changed in the near future? Does he honestly believe that the 8 per cent. devaluation of the green pound will restore confidence in the livestock sector of the industry, particularly in beef?

Mr. Silkin

On the main point, I think that my position has been stated so often that I would be wearying the House if I engaged in otiose repetition. It would be a splendid thing if I could make all the decisions on pigmeat mcas by myself. I am sure that they would be very good and very wise decisions, but the hon. Gentleman, in being kind enough to mention my negotiating skill, as he put it, knows that I have to deal with eight other countries and the Commission.

Mr. Robert Hughes

May I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on the fish conservation measures? May I also express the hope that the congratulations he has received from all quarters of the House will not go to his head? Will he proceed on the important issues of limits with the same degree of vigour and tenacity as have won him this big breakthrough in the present negotiations?

Mr. Silkin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said. I can assure him that the congratulations will not go to my head. I have had other receptions from other hon. Members and they never went to my head. I shall keep in mind what he said about limits.

Mr. Watt

I, too, congratulate the Minister on his considerable achievement in securing some measure to conserve our stocks. Will he not concede that the fishermen know best and insist that having a 50-mile conservation zone round our shores from which we can exclude our EEC partners with the small mesh nets is the most effective way of conserving stocks?

Is the Minister aware that the measures he recently took to help pig producers have had no effect? Does he believe that either the CFP or the CAP will ever be fair to the British producer or consumer?

Mr. Silkin

The hon. Gentleman has asked me a triple-barrelled question. I am very much aware of the views about the 50-mile limit. I have tried to deal with the question before. It is of use to me in Brussels that the House is so unanimous on this issue. After all, in a sense we have to win back something that was given away in the Treaty of Accession.

This is only the second week in which the pigmeat subsidy has been operating, but I understand that 80 per cent. of the subsidy is going to the pigmeat producers. I had that checked before I came here, and that does not seem to me to be a bad average.

On the third point, we shall all have to do our best, shall we not, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker

That is what I was about to suggest. Right hon. and hon. Members know that I am very jealous of the rights of the House to question in detail what goes on in the Council of Ministers, but I should be helped in this matter if hon. Members would try to make their questions as brief as possible.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

Will my right hon. Friend take it that he deserves our congratulations on the strong stand which he has taken on behalf of this country in all matters affecting the EEC, and he is, indeed, a mitigating influence against the patent disadvantage of our having joined the EEC? May he go from strength to strength.

Mr. Silkin

I note my hon. Friend's approbation. I intend to go from strength to strength.

Mr. Speaker

Order. May I suggest that the Minister does not answer every compliment?

Mr. Peter Mills

Will the Minister acknowledge that the costs of production of British agriculture have risen alarmingly, and will he agree also that home production is falling fast? Do his announcement today and the stand which he is taking help home food production or not?

Mr. Silkin

I have very much in mind what you have said, Mr. Speaker. I agree that there has obviously been a rise in costs in Britain as well as throughout the Community in general. The hon. Gentleman may have forgotten that there are two transitional steps to be taken this year which will raise costs, which were in the Treaty of Accession.

Mr. McNamara

Now that we have got out of the way the congratulations for what he has done for the inshore fleet, will my right hon. Friend recognise that we are still deeply concerned about the prospects for the deep-water fleet? When can we hope to have something done about that? Second, with regard to the green pound, is my right hon. Friend aware that if the Government are to have any success whatever in their negotiations over wages policy or any other such policies, it is essential that there be no acceptance of any of the argument put forward by other members of the Community or by the Opposition to affect the present value of the green pound?

Mr. Silkin

I take what my hon. Friend says about the green pound. The question of deep-water fishing remains still very much with us. This is in part where the negotiations with third countries, for example, Norway in particular, come in. The matter of Iceland still remains some-where in our consciousness. I hope that these matters will be resolved in the near future.

Mr. Bowden

I can give the right hon. Gentleman only one cheer out of three, but I nevertheless congratulate him to that extent. Will he accept, however, that there is still a long way to go on conservation and that time is of the essence of the matter? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the difficulties of the South Coast, with the overfishing and illegal fishing which is still going on, and will he not again consider the possibility of bringing in a ban on beam trawling to allow time for this area to recover?

Mr. Silkin

There are many conservation measures which, had I had the time or had it been tactically right at this moment to introduce them, I should have recommended to the House. All the measures which people are now talking about generally are well under consideration.

Mr. Gould

Did my right hon. Friend ask why CAP prices are fixed in terms of an agricultural unit of account which is aligned to currencies in the snake as opposed to the average of all EEC currencies, and did he point out that the effect of this distortion is to push up EEC prices 19 per cent. higher than they should be and also to disguise the fact that the green mark—to say nothing of the green guilder, the green krone and the green Belgian franc—is substantially more out of line than is the green pound?

Mr. Silkin

Much of that is true. As my hon. Friend knows, the original method of calculating the green currencies was as he put it; it bore no relation to the snake.

Mr. Shepherd

Will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that his attitude to the mcas in relation to pigmeat calculations borders on the smug and self-satisfied? Will he recognise that pig producers are still bitterly concerned about their industry, in spite of his temporary subsidy, and will he maintain the full force of argument for recalculation in relation to these compensatory amounts?

Mr. Silkin

I hope that I am not being smug or complacent about it. It is a very difficult problem about which I care a great deal. We are doing our best. That was why we introduced the national subsidy in the first place. But the long-term solution must be a recalculation of mcas, and I am doing my best to ensure that that is so.

Mr. Prescott

My right hon. Friend's statement represents a notable achievement on which I offer my congratulations and the welcome of fishermen in my area, but is it not a fact that it does not enshrine the principle of exclusive coastal State control and conservation, a principle which was developed in a formula worked out by the European Socialist Group in the European Parliament? We envisage this as a permanent part of the European policy, but my right hon. Friend refers to it in his statement as temporary. Will he comment on that?

Mr. Silkin

I was talking about the immediate conservation measures which it was necessary to introduce in this month of February if we were to protect certain fish stocks—I regarded those as absolutely minimal—and that is why they came ahead of time. But perhaps even more important than that was the need to safeguard the right of national action if the Community's conservation measures were not good enough.

Mr. Wiggin

Will the Minister agree that farmers' costs have risen by nearly £1,000 million this year through inflation and other factors, and will he say, either in percentage terms or in money terms, how much of those costs are being recouped by this agreement?

Mr. Silkin

I do not quite know what agreement the hon. Gentleman means. If he means the proposals of the Commission—they are rather detailed— they will be available in the Vote Office tomorrow, and the hon. Gentleman can make his calculations. I am being a little cagey about this because there are two slightly different calculations made on both sides.

Mr. Torney

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, but will he agree that devaluation of the green pound would not necessarily help pig producers because it would force up the price of pig feeding stuffs? Further, will he take it that the great majority of British housewives are extremely concerned about the continuing rise in food prices, and he will have widespread support from housewives in his fight against the attempt of the Common Market to force up the price of food in our shops?

Mr. Silkin

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I have pointed out to the House that a devaluation of the green pound—unless one removed the whole of the green pound, which no one is advocating—would simply have an equal effect on the increase in the cost of feeding stuffs.

Mr. Spearing

Is it not a fact that the Common Market Agriculture Ministers whom my right hon. Friend visits are not representative of consumers in the Council, and, if they are not, can he tell the House who is? Second, reverting to my right hon. Friend's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould), if prices in the EEC are 19 per cent. higher than they ought to be by calculation, why is there a need shortly to increase them anyway?

Mr. Silkin

My hon. Friend is putting much of the argument which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary was putting yesterday. With regard to his first point, I thought it very encouraging that Commissioner Gundelach himself talked about the consumer and for the first time gave an equality between consumer and producer. As I see it, my job as Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is to keep the balance between all those three parts of my Department.

Mr. Corbett

Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Parliamentary Secretary, who speaks for Britain on these matters in these few months, to stick firmly to the line that it would be the height of madness to lead to price increases where there are structural surpluses, and will he try to explain better than he has done that an across-the-board devaluation of the green pound of any significant size would be as damaging to sectors of the agricultural industry as it would be to the consumer?

Mr. Silkin

My hon. Friend is quite right. But I have made that point about the damage to agriculture, though not all sectors of it are affected in the same way.

As for my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, he stuck very firmly to the text given him by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Ioan Evans

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the action that he has taken to defend the interests of British farmers and consumers. However, rather than seeking to amend or to reform the common agriculture policy, will he seek the ending of it altogether, bearing in mind that it works very much to the disadvantage of the long-term interests of our farmers and increases prices to consumers?

Mr. Silkin

I shall occupy the Presidency for the next four and a half months. My hon. Friend gives me too much weight in that assembly. I do not think that it can be done in four and a half months.