HC Deb 23 February 1984 vol 54 cc1063-70

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Garel Jones.]

10.11 pm
Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I was on my feet, and in that way I did the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) a service.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I ask for your guidance on the hon. Gentleman's intervention. As I recollect, he was not on his feet. If he was, he has been on his feet for far too long today.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

Order. Some people might say that about the hon. Gentleman. However, the fact is that he was on his feet and I have called him.

Mr. Golding

That was churlish of the hon. Member for South Hams. If I had not risen, and the Parliamentary Secretary had been called, the hon. Gentleman would have been made a twit. He would not have been able to continue his speech. Having spoken on the radio this morning and made much of what he was going to do, he would have been marked as absent tonight. It was only because I rose to my feet immediately—

Mr. Steen

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is an adjournment debate on English wine. Although one is always happy to hear the hon. Gentleman, he may feel that it is appropriate to allow me to finish my remarks, and to allow the hon. Lady to answer.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It would be better to allow the hon. Gentleman to proceed. We are all then anxious to hear the Minister.

Mr. Golding

I was on my feet to ask certain questions. The hon. Gentleman has been making a point about access by tourists to drink. I ask how he would define a bona fide tourist. That question must be asked. The hon. Gentleman would be creating a wine drinking den in the west country to which people could have access at any hour of the day or night. No Home Office Minister could permit that. The cider interests—which the hon. Gentleman is overlooking in his support of wine—and the beer interest would feel aggrieved if the hon. Gentleman created wine drinking dens at their expense.

Mr. Steen


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I do the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) an injustice. I had not realised that this was an intervention in the hon. Gentleman's speech. The hon. Gentleman has the Floor.

Mr. Steen

In view of your kind statement, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wonder whether the Clerk might put the clock back for two minutes — the length of the hon. Gentleman's intervention. However, I see that the Clerk is waving his head. If I am not as coherent as I was earlier this evening, the reason is that I have consumed with my colleagues a bottle of English wine—Carr Taylor, which is on the English wine list and is grown from English grapes around Hastings.

Rather than delay the House any further, I shall recap for the benefit of hon. Members who did not have the good fortune to hear the previous speech. English wine is made from fresh grapes grown in England. British wine is made from syrup, most of which comes from the EEC and there is some dispute as to whether it comes from Argentina and Chile. The empire preference gives British wine a 42 per cent. duty advantage over English wine and it continues to give advantage to German, French, Italian and Greek wine. Moreover, EEC concentrate receives a subsidy which is not available to English wine producers. That blatant discrimination is aggravated by British wine labels which boast names such as Rougemont Castle and Carrow Prior which depict colourful scenes of Britain in an attempt to deceive the public into thinking that the wine comes from Britain when Britain is the one place where it does not come from. The voluntary code—

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I apologise for intervening. My hon. Friend, who is continuing his speech and, with your approval, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is now apparently finishing, said that he would repeat all of the main points of his earlier speech. I know that this Adjournment debate is somewhat longer than usual. Is it in order for my hon. Friend to explain his arguments again as he has kindly given me permission to speak briefly—I hope that that has the approval of the House and of my hon. Friend the Minister. I should like to speak, but time is running out and, as my hon. Friend has conceded, he is merely repeating the points that he made before Seven o'clock.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It looks to me as though the hon. Gentleman will not now get the time that he hoped for. The debate will last for half an hour after resuming. If the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) and the Minister have agreed that the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) can speak, he can do so, but I appeal to them to be brief.

Mr. Steen

I cannot agree to my hon. Friend making a speech now. He intervened several times before seven o'clock and has now had the opportunity to make another point on a point of order. I shall agree to no more interventions from my hon. Friends or Opposition Members. I am glad to see that the only Opposition Member present—the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) —has a vineyard in his constituency. He has the Adgestone vineyard. There might be others.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I also have the Cranmore and Barton vineyards.

Mr. Steen

I was discussing the voluntary code stating the origin of wine. The voluntary code on British wine labels is misleading.

When the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) intervened, I was talking about British vineyards and the problem with tourists. We want to encourage tourists to visit our vineyards, but they are prevented from tasting wine outside licensing hours unless the vineyard has aplied for and received an on-licence. The licence involves the vineyard having a separate room or building for the purpose. If a tourist visits a vineyard and wants to taste its wine out of licensing hours, the vineyard must have an off licence which also requires a separate building or room for the purpose.

The snag occurs when foreign tourists visit a vineyard, wish to taste the wine, cannot do so because they are there outside licensing hours and must therefore buy a bottle from the off licence. Moreover, they cannot consume the wine on the premises but must go to a neighbouring farmer for a corkscrew and glass to taste the wine. That makes a nonsense of the laws. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will deal with that.

I learned to my horror that the Food from Britain campaign, which was launched by my hon. Friend's Department, features British wine. Britain is the one place where that wine does not come from. My hon. Friend the Minister has been extremely kind to listen to all of the material which has been thrown at her for nearly two hours. I hope that when she makes her winding-up speech —if she gets the opportunity to do so—she will take a constructive and helpful attitude. The English wine industry is young and run by the type of people whom the Prime Minister and my hon. Friend's Department want to prosper. They are entrepreneurs and often young people who want to make a go of a crop which is full of problems in our climate. I hope that my hon. Friend will give them some encouragement and will not make them feel that the Ministry and the Government are not doing all that they can to assist this important industry develop.

10.20 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food(Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

I am delighted to reply to the debate on English vineyards and the problems facing the English wine industry. I have always admired the dedication shown by English wine growers in restarting a wine industry in this country. They have had to contend with the biggest problem of all—the climate. I am impressed by the quality of wine made under those conditions. It is a remarkable achievement when one considers that the industry has grown from nothing since the war.

The extent of viticulture in Roman and medieval times suggests that there is nothing wrong with the soil conditions in this country, although the climate then was probably warmer. The success of wine growing in other northern European regions, especially in Champagne and the Moselle, proves that good wine is not the exclusive preserve of the southern countries. It is often said that, as the vines get older, so the wine produced gets better. Therefore, I look forward to future vintages with great interest.

I am glad to note that the wine industry has just had two good vintages, in 1982 and 1983. They were of good quality, and plentiful. Last year's harvest was a record, and it will be interesting to see how the wine turns out. One has to expect some good and some bad years, as in any other agriculture industry, but such improvements in production reflect underlying advances in the knowledge and skill of the producers.

It is clear that the industry is here to stay, so we must assemble serious statistics on it. Wine is not specifically mentioned in the agriculture census, and information on vineyards is, therefore, aggregated with other crops in the published information.

My Ministry carried out a special survey of English wine in 1975, to establish the areas planted with particular wine varieties and the season of planting. That information is out of date now, but I know that the English Vineyards Association is interested in collecting some up-to-date statistics. The association circulated a questionnaire among its members about a year ago, but the response rate was rather disappointing.

More recently, the association has discussed that matter with my officials. This year, the suggestion was floated of a joint English Vineyards Association—MAFF exercise. I have yet to see the details and would need to he assured that the exercise would not simply create another form-filling exercise, but the idea merits examination and I shall be interested to see the proposals in due course.

A factor which we must bear in mind in any discussions on wine is that this is a product covered by the common agricultural policy, the wine regime of which contains very detailed rules on all aspects of production, marketing and labelling. Wine is a major CAP commodity and its importance will be emphasised still further when Spain and Portugal join the Community. The regime, of course, applies in the United Kingdom as well as in the main producer countries, although I am glad to say that English wine is exempt from some of its more onerous conditions. For example, English wine is not covered by the ban on new planting of vines for table wine which operates throughout the rest of the Community. That is a vital derogation, without which the industry could scarcely have developed at all.

We are also exempt from the requirement to supervise destruction of by-products, a quality-control measure which would lead to an unnecessary administrative burden in the United Kingdom. Finally, growers are not closely restricted as to the vine varieties that they should plant as it is still too soon to decide which are the most suitable for English viticultural conditions. In contrast with these areas in which some of the strictest conditions of the regime are waived, it is fair to acknowledge that we do not operate Community support measures such as distillation in this country. The Ministry has discussed this balance with the English Vineyards Association on various occasions, and the association has always insisted that nothing should be done to imperil the present status of English wine-growing, which it believes should remain experimental. We support that objective.

Having said all that, there is unfortunately a serious surplus of wine in the Community, caused by the growing gap between production and consumption. The main means of disposing of it—distillation—is not only costly but creates alcohol or brandy which may compete with our own alcohol and spirit drinks industries. I mention these matters which may appear to be remote from English wine because they are very much to the forefront of the current deliberations in Brussels. The European Commission has recently produced a large package of proposals to amend the wine regime and most of these are aimed directly or indirectly at making economies in the regime. Because of our budgetary and industrial concerns it is clear that the Government must give those proposals very serious consideration. Indeed, our general concern is that the Commission proposals, although a step in the right direction, do not go far enough to discourage overproduction in the future. Enlargement of the Community is likely to increase the surplus and therefore firm action is more than ever necessary.

Two of the Commission's proposals will directly affect English wine and it may be helpful if I explain our position on them. The first would raise the minimum natural alcoholic strength of wine in all regions of the Community. In some northern regions, including the United Kingdom, the increase would be 1 per cent. —from 5 to 6 per cent. — while elsewhere the increase would be 0.5 per cent. The Commission's main object here is to improve wine quality—and discourage overproduction—by reducing the amount of "enrichment", a term to which I shall return in a moment, carried out in the Community. That is an objective which we would support for the Community in general and in the light of discussion with the English Vineyards Association we shall press for English wine to be treated no less favourably than that of the northern regions such as the Moselle.

The second part of the proposals concerns enrichment—increase of the alcoholic strength of wine where this is naturally low. At present growers in the north are permitted to use sugar for this, while those in the south have to use grape must. In a double proposal, the Commission would ban the use of sugar in the north and abolish the aid paid on grape must in the south. This would have effect from 1990 and would produce a substantial saving—about 115 million ecu or nearly £80 million, according to Commission estimates. The effect of that is that English wine growers would have to use rectified concentrated grape must — in effect a pure syrup of grape sugar—for enrichment. Although I believe that use of this product should have no adverse effect on the wine produced, I remain to be convinced that rectified must will be available in sufficient quantity and at reasonable prices. The Government will therefore be seeking assurances on those points before agreeing to the proposal.

Another area where EC developments may affect English wine is that of aid for promotion. The Council of Ministers agreed last year to set aside a small sum of money for wine promotion to try to offset the increase in the surplus. Although we must ensure that any action in this area does not adversely affect the position of our other drinks industries, the proposal from the English Vineyards Association seems sensible. It has asked that some funds be granted to reduce the cost to the grower of applying for the association's seal of quality. If that can be achieved, many smaller growers may be encouraged to apply for the seal, with beneficial effects for the entire industry.

That brings me to a point which is often raised—that of quality wine status for English wine. We are frequently asked why it is impossible to introduce a form of—dare I say it in French? —"Appellation Controlée", as is done in other producing countries. The answer is that quality status can be accorded only on the basis of lengthy testing of geographical areas, vine varieties and production methods. By definition, quality wines are those which meet stringent rules, and that implies a substantial restriction on the producer's freedom to experiment.

It is clear from discussions with the industry that, although quality wine status may be a desirable long-term objective, it is premature to talk about it now. But, having said that, I applaud the initiative of the English Vineyards Association in setting its seal of quality in 1978. This award is officially a certification trade mark and consists of a golden disc stuck to the bottle. It shows that the wine meets certain analytical criteria and that it has been passed by an expert tasting panel. This is a useful way in which to improve the consumer's confidence in the product he is buying.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) raised the question of the distinction between English wine and British wine. English wine is made here from grapes grown in English vineyards. British wine is also manufactured here from grape must imported from other countries. That grape must is usually imported in concentrated form, when it is a syrupy liquid. It is easier to handle in that form, and there is an obvious saving in transport costs. I assure my hon. Friend that the main countries of origin are Cyprus, Spain, Italy, Greece and France, and my information is that it is many years since supplies were obtained from South America. I trust that he will accept that. The manufacturers have drawn up a code of practice covering production processes, as well as the labelling of the final product. The must is diluted back to the original strength and then fermented like any other wine, under closely controlled conditions.

I emphasise that English wine and British wine are perfectly respectable products. British wine has been in existence for at least 100 years. Some of the leading English wine growers, wishing to make use of their equipment in the off-season, even make British wine too. Thus, the products exist side by side, although they serve different segments of the market.

Mr. Steen

Why, then, does British wine have a 42 per cent. advantage in terms of duty over English wine?

Mrs. Fenner

My hon. Friend will know that I cannot talk about duty on wine. He must raise that matter with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. British wine is an inexpensive product at the bottom end of the price range, and it is dependent for its appeal largely on its price. English wine, by contrast, is a prestige commodity whose price places it, like single vineyard wines from any other country, well up the price range for wine. The clinetele for these two products are therefore entirely different.

Mr. Dykes

Further to that brilliant and highly acceptable analysis of the difference between the two, does my hon. Friend agree that it is wrong for our hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) to compare the two directly? They are different markets, and the aim should be a reduction in the duty on all wines, including imported wine.

Mrs. Fenner

I hope I have made the point that they are different.

I know that the question of excise duties is of interest to all sectors of the drinks industry. This is not just the usual pre-Budget speculation but stems from two important Community developments. The first is the judgment on wine and beer taxation, where the European Court found that our duties had tended to protect beer at the expense of wine, and we are therefore required to bring the duties on these products closer together.

The second development is a reasoned opinion from the European Commission calling on us to harmonise the duties on wine, British wine and cider. The Government have already announced that, before the next Budget, the European Court judgment will be taken into account. Both these developments imply some improvement in the relative position of wine compared to other drinks, but the House will know that I cannot be more specific on that now.

Mr. Steen

Will my hon. Friend deal with the labelling of British wine?

Mrs. Fenner

English wine needs merely to state "table wine", although producers use the phrase "English table wine". "British wine" is a phrase permitted under Community and British law, provided that confusion with other wine is avoided. Our labelling law permits the use of a traditional term to describe a product, and British wine is such a term. Nevertheless, although the phrase is adequate under the law, the manufacturers have recently volunteered to add another phrase to their label, to which my hon. Friend referred. It now bears a phrase alongside British wine to show that the wine is made from imported raw materials. I welcome this voluntary initiative. It has avoided the need for any legislation. It should enable the products to co-exist in future.

My hon. Friend made much of some of the labels. I confess that I have not seen a label with a rolling countryside. Rougemont is a perfectly respectable label, showing Rougemont castle. That wine is made in the Exeter area by Whiteways at Whimple in Devon. Another one to which my hon. Friend referred is Belgrove. To my certain knowledge, Belgrove is a non-existent place and there can be no risk of confusion. As to Carrow Prior, that label states correctly that the product is made on the site of a medieval priory, and, as this is true, there can surely be no objection to it.

I am glad that my hon. Friend and other hon. Friends who have spoken in the debate took the trouble to raise this interesting subject. I hope that I have explained that, although the industry is a small one, we take its problems seriously.

I am sorry that I have been unable to cover all the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams in his extensive speech. I assure him that any points that I have not had time to answer will be covered by writing to him.

10.40 pm
Mr. Golding

I compliment the Minister on her speech. She spoke with the eloquence that only one who has had an apprenticeship in politics in Newcastle-under-Lyme could have achieved. It was an excellent contribution. I wondered who she was protecting. Is the Minister there to protect the bogus wine syrup industry or the consumer? I do not drink wine of either character.

I am very disappointed that the Minister could not bring herself to refer to the problem of duty. I thought that a Minister of the Crown at the Dispatch Box could discuss every subject raised in debate. She did not cover this subject because she wanted to dodge the central issue—the fact that, if the Common Market has its way, the duty on beer will go up by 7p a pint and—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.