HC Deb 16 February 1978 vol 944 cc639-42
3. Mr. Wiggin

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he expects proposals for the future of potato marketing to be agreed.

7. Mr. Temple-Morris

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he will next meet the Chairman of the Potato Marketing Board.

13. Mr. Brotherton

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement about the future of the Potato Marketing Board.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. E. S. Bishop)

As I said in reply to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) on 19th January—[Vol. 942, c. 654]—I am in frequent touch with the Chairman of the Potato Marketing Board but have no meeting arranged at present.

The long-term future of the Board depends on whether it can play a constructive role within the EEC regime for potatoes curently under discussion. In the meantime, appropriate arrangements for the 1978 crop are being considered with the interests concerned and will be announced as soon as possible.

Mr. Wiggin

The Government have had five years' notice that this would become a matter of importance on 1st January 1978. When may we expect something more concrete to come out of the discussions? When are producers likely to have a firm assurance of a price guarantee of a similar kind for the coming growing season?

Mr. Bishop

The hon. Gentleman will realise that although the date of the ending of transition and harmonisation was known some time in advance, many other areas required discussion as well. Getting agreement with all the member countries concerned is not always easy. In the interests of the trade, we have said that the 1977 guarantee will be honoured. We are now discussing with the industry proposals for a new regime, and we shall be announcing arrangements for the 1978 crop as soon as possible.

Mr. Temple-Morris

Regarding the 1977 guarantee, I understand that the Ministry and the Potato Marketing Board have already taken off the market about seven times the estimated surplus, yet the average price remains about £36 a tonne, which is £10 below the guaranteed price. When is a guarantee not a guarantee? What has gone wrong? Is anyone evading the import ban?

Mr. Bishop

The hon. Gentleman will know that on various occasions we have given assurances that the guaranteed price of £45.77 per tonne will be fulfilled for the year as a whole. We have engaged in a buying-in programme which is aimed at stabilising the market.

Mr. Brotherton

Does the Minister agree that we should work towards self-sufficiency in potatoes with a small surplus for export? Does he also agree that the Potato Marketing Board, or a similar organisation, offers the best chance of achieving that end?

Mr. Bishop

The hon. Gentleman will know that discussions on these matters have been going on with the Community for some time. My right hon. Friend has on a number of occasions stressed the urgency of the situation in order that the industry should be aware of it. We want to ensure that the producer has the confidence to produce. We want as far as possible to guarantee reasonable prices, but we have to take account of other countries which supply us with some of their crop from time to time.

Mr. Fernyhough

Does the Minister agree that it is very unlikely that any of these questions would have been necessary if Conservative Members had not voted so enthusiastically to take us into the Common Market?

Mr. Bishop

My right hon. Friend is quite right on that point. He will know that getting agreement with the other members of the Community is not always an easy matter. At the same time, it is urgent that we should have some idea of the future of the regime and the kind of regime that we want for our industry, so that the producers can go ahead for the coming season.

Mr. Jopling

Will the Minister of State be good enough to take this opportunity to put on record that he agrees with our view that if the powers of the Potato Marketing Board were to disappear the housewives of this country would be much more susceptible to shortages and high prices?

Mr. Bishop

I am glad that the hon. Member agrees with our point of view that we want a regime that will take into account the factors that I have mentioned. The present system has up to now served us well and we want to ensure that an agreement is reached at the earliest possible time.

Mr. Ford

When my hon. Friend next meets the Chairman of the Potato Marketing Board will he ask him to explain why he is releasing potatoes at £30 a tonne to processing organisations taking 10,000 tonnes a year or more, thus placing at a disadvantage the smaller organisations, who are paying up to £46 a tonne?

Mr. Bishop

The basic reason for the buying-in programme is to take surplus off the market and stabilise prices. Some of the buying-in programme assists the industry in relation to stock feed. We have had representations from the potato processors to help them in the present situation. I think that there has been a general welcome for the policy, which means that they receive some concessions in helping them in the problem that they face at present.

Mr. Geraint Howells

Is it possible at this late hour to give back to our marketing boards the statutory powers?

Mr. Bishop

The powers that any boards will have in the future will depend upon the kind of regime and policy on which we manage to get agreement in the Community.