HC Deb 04 February 1982 vol 17 cc525-7
3. Mr. Latham

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what progress has been achieved by the European Economic Community in eliminating Dutch gas subsidies for horticulture; and whether he will make a statement.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Peter Walker)

At the last meeting of the Council of Ministers virtually all member States pressed the Dutch Government, together with the Commission, to see that a situation arose where there was an elimination of the gap between the industrial and horticultural tariffs operated in Holland. This item is on the agenda for the meeting of 15 February, and I expect on that occasion some positive proposals to be put, and, I hope, an elimination of this unfair advantage to the Dutch growers.

Mr. Latham

As the real answer is that no progress has been made in Brussels—[Horn. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear"]—and as my right hon. Friend has had to introduce welcome national aids to prevent local growers from being destroyed, will he now make it plain to the Dutch that if they want to play it tough and rough so can we?

Mr. Walker

If the Dutch Government do not present firm proposals on 15 February, I have no doubt that they will be taken immediately to the European Court. That is the correct procedure to pursue. We have introduced national aids in the interim, and until the matter is settled it will be my policy to ensure that the aids continue.

Mr. Geraint Howells

When does the Minister expect British producers to compete on equal terms with Dutch growers?

Mr. Walker

I hope that that will be in the near future. The hon. Gentleman knows that I inherited a situation where the gap already existed.

Mr. Torney

Take action now.

Mr. Walker

No progress of any description had been made. If the gap is eliminated in the coming months, it will be considerable and important progress.

Mr. Mark Hughes

Does the Minister accept that he will be party to a decision so deferred as to lead to the destruction of the British glasshouse industry? Is he aware that his procrastination and that of the Commission is putting the whole of the British glasshouse industry at risk? We welcome the aid that the Government have given, but does he recognise that no part of that can offset the damage that has been done?

Mr. Walker

To take up the words of the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney), who sits below the Gangway, there was total procrastination by the last Labour Government. They did nothing on this issue and they were completely lethargic. I am glad that in the near future some decisions will be taken.

Mr. Michael Spicer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that kerosene is the fuel used most widely by the Vale of Evesham growers? Does he understand that if we take into account the £4 million subsidy when comparing the fuel costs of British growers with those of the Dutch, British growers with those of the Dutch, British growers are paying about three times as much as Dutch growers for their fuel?

Mr. Walker

The Dutch Government are under considerable pressure from all the countries represented by the Commission. That pressure is not confined to the British. I hope and believe that on 15 February the Dutch Government will announce the basis upon which they will eliminate unfair competition.

Mr. Torney

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman became so excited. Despite what happened when the Labour Government were in office, does he agree that the horticulture sector has become desperate during the tenure of this Government? What urgent action will he take? Will he allow the procrastination of the Common Market to continue until British horticulture has gone the way of the fishing industry and has disappeared? Will he act unilaterally to save the industry?

Mr. Walker

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman became so excited. I welcome his confession of the failure of the Labour Government. I am fairly optimistic that proposals will be submitted on 15 February. If they are, and if they are satisfactory, I shall warmly welcome them. I have taken full action in providing national aids to the industry to support it in the meantime and I shall continue to make those aids available.