HC Deb 23 January 1984 vol 52 cc616-8
3. Mr. Harvey

asked the Secretary of State for Wales if he will ensure that in the continuing European Economic Community negotiations the interests of Welsh milk producers are safeguarded.

Mr. Nicholas Edwards

We shall be seeking to safeguard the overall British interest, including that of Welsh milk producers, and will oppose any measures which discriminate against the United Kingdom.

Mr. Harvey

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware of the critical state in which not only Welsh hill cow producers but Welsh hill sheep farmers have been left because of the suspension of grants following the failure to reach agreement by the Council of Ministers in Brussels?

Mr. Edwards

It is an exaggeration to say that farmers have been left in a critical state. Normally, almost no grants are paid in January. The applications are being processed, and we normally expect grants to flow at an increasing level in February. I understand the great concern expressed by the agriculture unions and others at the unfortunate delay in agreeing that grants can be paid. We are urgently investigating the legal implications with the relevant authorities in Brussels. I hope that we shall soon reach a settlement on this important matter.

Mr. Alex Carlile

Is the Secretary of State aware that I have received two representations this morning on the question asked by the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Harvey)? Some small farmers are being caused severe financial embarrassment by the freezing of grants? Will the Secretary of State take temporary steps to alleviate the financial hardship suffered as a result of the freezing of grants?

Mr. Edwards

We pressed hard for roll-over provisions at the last meeting of Agriculture Ministers, and we shall do so again at the next meeting. In the meantime, we have sent officials to Brussels to try to reach agreement on the legal implications. As soon as the legal matters are settled, we shall. of course, try to meet the point made by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Mark Robinson

Will my right hon. Friend explore the possibilities of obtaining funds from Europe for the Welsh plant breeding station?

Mr. Edwards

I note the suggestion, although that is not my direct ministerial responsibility. Some of the suggestions about the threat to the plant breeding station have been greatly exaggerated. There is a firm future for that institution. Its operations have just been extended by the acquisition of an upland farm in Powys and by work on the uplands.

Mr. Roy Hughes

As well as safeguarding the interests of Welsh milk producers, will the Secretary of State ensure that the interests of Welsh steel workers are safeguarded? Will he tell this organisation—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is well wide of the question.

Sir Raymond Gower

I acknowledge the efforts being made to reach agreement, but will my right hon. Friend take account of the particular dependence upon milk production for their income by a large proportion of Welsh farmers?

Mr. Edwards

Of course. My hon. Friend will understand that he need not tell me, the right hon. Member for Pembroke, about the importance of the milk sector. Nevertheless, there must be adjustments and restraints on prices if the Community's problems are to be resolved. One of our principal objectives is to ensure that any changes are on a non-discriminatrory basis and that Welsh producers are fairly treated in relation to producers in Europe as a whole.

Mr. Ray Powell

May I remind the right hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Edwards) that there is a problem about the amount of milk imports allowed into the United Kingdom? If the Government are not prepared to do anything about it, I suggest that the Secretary of State should read the article in today's Daily Mirror about the amount of milk that is expected to come into the United Kingdom from Denmark, Ireland, Belgium and Germany. Is he aware that we have opened the flood gates to milk imports? Does he accept that that will affect milk producers and doorstep deliveries, with the loss of thousands of jobs? What does the Secretary of State propose to do to alter that situation?

Mr. Edwards

That is a gross exaggeration of the position. So far the shipments of UHT milk have been small. We are insisting on the strictest safeguards on health grounds and limiting the number of ports through which shipments can be made. It is for consumers to decide whether they wish to buy their milk in supermarkets or to have it delivered to the doorstep. There is no evidence that they will make a substantial switch to UHT milk, which has clear disadvantages.