HC Deb 08 February 1979 vol 962 cc532-4
1. Mr. Hicks

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when next he will attend a meeting of the Council of Agriculture Ministers of the European Economic Community.

15. Mr. Hoyle

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he expects next to meet his European Community ministerial colleagues.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Silkin)

I shall attend the meeting of the Council of Agriculture Ministers on 12 February.

Mr. Hicks

Can the Minister confirm that for the United Kingdom dairy sector the combination of the suggested co-responsibility levy on additional milk products, taken with the inadequate proposed green pound devaluation, could mean the total erosion of the profitability of British dairy farmers? Does he agree that that would be disastrous for that sector of the industry and would have adverse effects upon the structure of the British countryside?

Mr. Silkin

The Commission's proposals for a green pound devaluation is a separate matter. The co-responsibility levy is highly discriminatory against United Kingdom dairy farmers. It conflicts entirely with the doctrine in which the whole House believes—that those who do not create the surplus in a commodity should be entitled to expand their production efficiently.

Mr. Hoyle

When my right hon. Friend meets the Ministers will he continue to support a general price freeze on agriculture products? If necessary, will he use the veto? Will he continue to defend the interests of the British housewife and never mind the Eurofanatics on the Opposition Benches?

Mr. Silkin

I am more worried about the Euro-fanatics round the table in Brussels. But I can assure my hon. Friend that not only shall we maintain to the final degree a freeze on common prices this year—which might involve the use of the veto, although I hope that it will not—but we intend to do so until the structural surpluses have been eliminated.

Mr. Dykes

In the context of those negotiations, would it not be a good idea to return to the theme of keeping down the intervention part of the agriculture budget and increasing the guidance payments to persuade inefficient farmers to leave the sector?

Mr. Silkin

Although I understand why inefficient farmers have to be compensated there is no reason why that cost should be added to the price of foodstuffs throughout the Community. That is a national concern and should be so considered.

Mr. Torney

When my right hon. Friend next meets his fellow Agriculture Ministers in Europe, will he remind them that the price of butter in the EEC is almost four times the price that it is on world markets? Will he therefore press hard that the best way to get rid of the huge butter surplus is to reduce the price of butter to housewives throughout the EEC, including Britain?

Mr. Silkin

Yes, and I have pointed this out on a number of occasions, and as recently as last Tuesday. Whatever they may say, in practice the German housewives who queued up to go on butter ship trips agreed with me.

Mr. Peyton

First, will the right hon. Gentleman give his full support to the French and Italians in seeking to get the proposed devaluation of the green currencies moving without delay? Secondly, is he aware of the warm agreement with what he said about the co-responsibility levy? It would be quite intolerable if the Germans, who are contributing the lion's share to this surplus, were allowed to be exempted from the rather fierce measures that are proposed, while our dairy farmers feel their full force.

Mr. Silkin

On the second point, I welcome the support of those on the Conservative Benches and of the right hon. Gentleman in particular. It is vital that people should understand that. But the right hon. Gentleman is a little wrong about the devaluation. Although there was an original French proposal that they should join, they remained totally silent about it, and I am not certain that they want a devaluation in advance. On the other hand, the Italians do. My position is clear. If the Italians get a devaluation of the green lira ahead of the price fixing, that will be one less worry for them in the price fixing. In that event, I reserve the British right to do the same, and it will be one less worry for us.

Mr. Geraint Howells

If the Minister fails to gain the agreement of his counterparts in Europe to devalue the green pound, what alternative plans does he have to help industry in this country? Secondly, when does he think that the price review negotiations will be finalised this year?

Mr. Silkin

On the second question, it might be quite a long summer. There seem to be some little local difficulties in the Community which have to be got out of the way first. The hon. Gentleman's first point is interesting. I have some ideas at the back of my mind, but they would imply that we never had a price fixing.