HC Deb 15 May 1984 vol 60 cc311-22 2.18 am
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Butler)

I beg to move, That the draft Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1984, which was laid before this House on 31st January, be approved. This order seeks to amend various items of legislation and to revoke others with which the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland is concerned. The order also provides for a levy on the Northern Ireland seed potato industry as well as for the making of schemes to aid consumers of liquid milk.

The order has already been thoroughly debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly and more recently in considerable detail by the Northern Ireland Committee, on 11 April this year. Following debate in that Committee I also wrote to a number of right hon. and hon. Members on points that they had raised. In view of that and of the late hour, I propose to limit my opening remarks to the most important provisions of the order.

Article 3 will enable the Department to levy the Northern Ireland seed potato industry and to allocate the money so collected for the benefit of the persons engaged in the production or marketing of seed potatoes. It is important that the work of promoting and developing the seed potato industry, previously carried on by the Northern Ireland Seed Potato Marketing Board, should be continued. Article 3 provides the means by which the funds for these functions can be collected from the industry and will enable the Department to ascribe a body to receive the levy income to carry out these functions.

It is the Government's view that Seed Potato Promotions (Northern Ireland) Ltd. would be a suitable body to receive the levy income. The Northern Ireland Assembly, although in favour of the Department being empowered to raise a levy, expressed some reservations about this, as did the Northern Ireland Committee, and we spent some time on the matter. I can assure the House, as I did the Committee, that there will be the fullest consultation with all interests including the Northern Ireland parties represented in the House before we proceed to collect the levy and allocate the funds. This article is only in the nature of enabling legislation, and therefore I hope that it will not prove to be a stumbling block tonight.

Article 4 provides a legislative base for making schemes to benefit consumers of liquid milk. The consumer subsidy ensures that consumers in Northern Ireland do not have to pay a higher retail price for their milk than consumers in England and Wales. For the producer, this has meant a very welcome £5.5 million of additional income in 1983–84 which is continuing at the same level in the current year. In view of the difficulties facing the producer at the moment, this is particularly important.

The original intention of article 5 was to transfer the duty to license slaughtermen from district councils to the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland. However, following representations made to me when I was responsible for agriculture matters, I decided that the article should be amended to leave the licensing function with the district councils.

The revised article amends the Slaughter of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1932 and makes it clear that local authorities should check the age and competence of the applicant before issuing a licence to slaughter or stun animals.

Article 7 extends the scope of the Agriculture (Temporary Assistance) Act (Northern Ireland) 1954 so that schemes can be made to aid persons engaged in the production, processing, packing or marketing of agricultural produce. At the moment the Act provides only for assistance to or for the direct benefit of farmers. I envisage, as I made clear in Committee, that industrial development legislation, with which there is an overlap, would be applied when the purpose behind the assistance provided was most directly for the benefit of the food processor.

Article 11 amends the Agricultural Produce (Meat Regulation and Pig Industry) Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 to enable the Department to recover the full costs of the meat inspection service while enabling measures to be taken for a more efficient use of staff, thereby reducing costs.

Article 16 amends the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 to bring Northern Ireland more closely into line with Great Britain and enable the Department to exercise greater control over the running of pet shops, animal boarding, riding and zoological establishments in the interest of the welfare of animals.

Article 17 makes a number of changes to the Diseases of Animals (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, most of which again reflect changes already made in animal health legislation in Great Britain.

Those, then, are the main provisions. The articles I have omitted from my commentary for the most part correct deficiencies and ambiguities or deal with outdated or obsolete provisions of various enactments.

I repeat that I have dealt with this order with some brevity despite its complexity, because of the length of the debate before this. I hope that that will not be judged as an offence to the House and I shall listen with the greatest possible care to the points that are made in the debate and reply as fully as I can to them.

2.24 am
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

I shall endeavour to be as brief as the Minister of State. We spent a considerable time on the order in Committee, and there is little point in going over the ground again.

The recent EEC decision on milk especially will have a dramatic effect on farmers in Northern Ireland, with a reduction of approximately 6 per cent. on 1983 figures. The Milk Marketing Board in Northern Ireland is estimating the reduction in farmers' incomes to be between £20 million and £30 million. The Minister might need to use some of the powers contained in the order to soften the blow, especially to those smaller and more vulnerable farmers.

I shall concentrate on the issue raised in Committee about the ability of Northern Ireland dairy farmers to export milk, or, as the Minister preferred to call it, to "tranship" milk to Britain. The hon. Member for Upper Balm (Mr. McCusker) quoted me as saying that the milk producers in Northern Ireland were not permitted to export their milk to the mainland. He went on to say: I hope that the Minister will tell him that that is wrong. In reply the Minister said: It is absolutely true that dairy products"— I emphasise the word "dairy"— are exported—perhaps 'transhipped' is the right word—from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. I pursued the matter further. I said: I am not 100 per cent. certain that I am right, but, as I understand it, they would not get a premium."— that is dairy farmers, if they were exporting direct to Britain, so in fact they would not be permitted to do so unless they were to lose the premium."—[Official Report, Northern Ireland Committee, 11 April 1984; c. 22–24.] I asked the Minister to clarify that point.

I am grateful to the Minister for replying to me in a letter dealing with two matters. I thank him for his comments on local slaughter facilities, to which he appropriately referred. The concluding two sentences of the letter state: As regards Article 4 you asked whether the consumer subsidy would be payable on milk exported to Great Britain. Under the current scheme the subsidy is not paid on UHT milk and"— I emphasise this point— since there is no trade at present in pasteurised milk between Northern Ireland and Great Britain because of legislative restrictions"— I stress that aspect— the situation does not arise. The letter continues: If trade in pasteurised milk should commence the position of consumer subsidy will be reviewed. It is hard to interpret that letter in any other way than as a concession of the point that I made in Committee. It is clear that, if the Minister says that there are legislative restrictions on the export of milk from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, the substantive point that I made in Committee was correct. I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify those points.

2.27 am
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

I have looked carefully at the order. It contains many points, which is why there has been much discussion on the matter. I hope that the Minister can clear up some of my problems.

The new organisation — Seed Potato Promotions (Northern Ireland) Ltd. — in Northern Ireland is a peculiar body. It is not a private firm in the normal sense of the word. It was set up for a specific reason. Have any costings of that organisation been done? If so, what will be the total cost? The levy will be collected by the Government, who will even sue the producer for the money if it is not forthcoming. The Government will treat the money as though it is a civil debt, and hand it over to the organisation.

At some point, accounts will clearly have to be produced. Before handing money over, people want an assuranace that they will get something in return. If the money is not paid, the producer can be fined, and he cannot sell his potatoes, because they will not be sealed as ware or seed potatoes if he has not come up with the cash. As a result, many potato growers work on the conacre system, and their cash flows may not be what they might wish at certain times of the year, especially if it is a bad year. They may find it difficult to do what is required. It seems harsh that there should be no leeway in demanding that payment. People may sometimes find it very difficult to raise the cash.

It seems that high-quality seed is to be produced. I assume that that means that the body involved will be responsible for the production of the basic stock. I know quite a lot about this issue, because under the old system of producing high-quality basic seed in Northern Ireland, my father grew the basic seed on his farm for 20 years. Thus, I have a fair idea of the procedure that was followed. I know that it has changed somewhat over the years as a result of advances in agricultural production, but it is still very costly to get those potatoes up to a saleable quality before being sold to farmers.

I wonder what price will be charged for that stock when it is sold to the commercial grower. It will obviously make a much higher price than the normal commercial crop. However, I am worried about whether the sale price of that basic stock to the commercial grower will cover the cost of production up to that level. If not, what proportion of the production cost will it cover? After all, all growers will be contributing, but it seems that only a fairly small number of them will benefit from the seed. There simply is not enough of it to go round. It has to go through a long and difficult process before the lower qualities are dissipated through the seed potato producing community.

The farmers will also face other costs. I think that they would like to be clear about exactly what those costs will be. It is a costly business to grow seed potatoes. We now find that certain sums are being sought for levies. I am not sure whether there is only one levy or two. There is a fee for inspecting the growing crop, which works out, I understand, at £19 per hectare this year. Whenever the crop is harvested and the point of sale is reached, there is a fee of £2.10 per tonne, or part of a tonne, which has to be paid as a Sealing fee.

I want to know whether one of two levies are involved per hectare. Is there one levy for inspecting the growing crop and does it go to the Department of Agriculture or to Seed Potato Promotions? If it goes to the Department of Agriculture, does the SPP have another levy? I believe that the sum of £21 per hectare has been mentioned. Is that two levies per hectare on the crop—one for the Department of Agriculture, to pay for inspecting the growing crop, and the other for the SPP?

If that is the case, there are a number of problems, the first being the sheer cost in fees to the farmer per hectare. If £19 goes to the Department, £21 to SPP and £2.10 per tonne, on say, 25 tonnes per hectare, I calculate the total at about £82.50 per hectare in the cost of inspection fees alone before the farmer gets down to selling anything. It is all very well to say that the £2.10 per tonne is paid by the merchant, but we know what that means; the farmer pays for it at arm's length, and it is a considerable sum on top of all the other costs.

Some growers find difficulty in understanding why various other functions are carried out by Department of Agriculture officials for no charge, yet the potato grower foots the bill for all the functions carried out for his crop. It may not be apparent to the Minister, but I assure him that it is a sore point that is rumbling around in the undergrowth of the potato fields of Northern Ireland. While they are not the most profitable of crops, they absorb a great deal of time, effort and money and they provide considerable employment in the rural areas at certain times of the year. It is a useful crop in the economy of Northern Ireland and anything that can be done to encourage it is to be welcomed.

I am curious to know what users of the River Bann will get in return for their tolls. It is a considerable waterway, with tremendous tourist potential, but unless people are able to get boats up and down the river—clearing away the rocks and removing the silt in Lough Beg—the full potential of the waterway will never be realised. I hope that the Government will consider how best to realise the important potential of the Bann for the benefit of Northern Ireland.

I have been pleased with the explanation that I have seen from the Minister about the drainage and other activities that were necessary to protect the existing drainage works in Lough Neagh and on the River Bann system generally. The Minister will recall the correspondence that he and I have had about Lough Neagh in recent weeks and of my concern lest there should be further interference with the water level of the lough without first carrying out the most detailed investigations into the effect of any change in the mean water level.

It seems that the dropping of the water level in the past has not been a total success—certain difficulties were caused by it — and I have observed the extensive flooding in the upper Bann. It is a dreadful sight after a long period of heavy rainfall. The extensive drainage operations that have taken place over the years in the rivers flowing into Lough Neagh must have had some effect on water levels. The wearing away of peaty soils once they are exposed to the air and when they come under cultivation is an aspect which has largely been overlooked. I hope, therefore, that before there is any fiddling with water levels, careful consideration will be given to the long-term effects that such changes might have on the whole ecology of the area.

If these changes in the legislation mean that the interference with the various lock gates in the course of the large-scale salmon poaching that went on over the years will he regarded as an illegal activity that will be curtailed, I think that the anglers will have a special word of thanks to the Minister. I would be pleased if he could confirm that that is so.

In a letter on 11 May, reference was made to the grants, a matter that was raised in relation to egg packing in Committee. A firm in my constituency applied for one of the grants that are given to agriculture from the Common Market. The firm fulfilled all the rules and regulations, and then discovered that the grant was not necessarily payable. If a person embarks upon a scheme, having completed all that he is required to complete, I suggest to the Minister that the grant should be payable automatically. That apparently does not happen at present. I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to the possibility of tidying up those matters relating to the Common Market grants.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) spoke about the milk situation in Northern Ireland. He referred briefly to the problem of the smaller producers. A man who had 50 cows in 1981, but who did not increase his production very much, has been hit very much harder by the recent changes than the man with 100 cows in 1981 who now has 200 cows. Even with a loss of 90 per cent., the man with 200 cows is bound to end up better off than the small man. The people who have achieved the greatest increase have benefited the most, and those who achieved no increase, or only a small increase, have been hard hit by the changes.

I have in my possession a considerable amount of correspondence, answers to questions in the House and various press releases from the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland, and from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Great Britain, concerning the quotas. I do not wish to go into that too deeply now. The Minister has heard it all before, and is aware of the figures and the claims that have been made. He will be aware that he, the farming organisations and the Milk Marketing Board of Northern Ireland do not agree about the situation relating to milk quotas for Northern Ireland. This does nobody any good.

If we are to continue to pump money into milk, and if the people in Northern Ireland who are producing milk are to be encouraged to keep at it, I suggest to the Minister that the Government should produce the full facts in relation not only to the figures used but to the years in which they were used, and to the method of calculation. I ask that the Minister produce all the statements made by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries arid Food, and by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland before and after the quota for Northern Ireland was decided.

The Minister of Agriculture went to Europe and did a deal that appears to have been painted with a fairly broad brush that left fuzzy edges.

The deal was agreed in general terms long before the details were worked out. The ill was done to Northern Ireland when the details were worked out and the same remark can be made for the United Kingdom generally. The end result has been confusion for farmers and the Government and accusations from the farmers of bad faith on the part of the Government.

I ask the Minister to consider the suggestion which was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) on 3 May following the statement of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in which he asked for a White Paper setting out all the details of the deal. The Government have been a wee bit too coy for they have failed to produce the full details and calculations and a clear statement that everyone can follow.

My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) and I tabled questions which were answered on 4 May but I am not satisfied with the answers. The answers skirt around the edges and fail to give the details that we sought. They do not produce the information that we need, and until that information is produced in full the bald statements of Ministers at whatever level will not be believed in Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland will be satisfied only when the full facts are made available and the full truth is revealed. If the Government have nothing to fear, they have no good reason for withholding the full facts and calculations for which we are asking. The sooner that the full facts and figures are produced, the better it will be for us all.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the detailed figures and calculations which have been issued by the Northern Ireland milk marketing board reinforce the plea that he has made to the Minister? The results of the calculations of the Minister of Agriculture are clearly at variance with the intentions of the Prime Minister, which she described in a statement and in answer to questions in the aftermath of the summit. As there is such a clear discrepancy, does my hon. Friend agree that there is all the more need to reiterate the demand for a White Paper?

Mr. Ross

My right hon. Friend is supporting what I have been saying throughout my speech. So many statements and assurances were given before the quota for Northern Ireland was announced. So many different figures have been bandied about and so many arguments have been advanced. Against that background, we need to have all the information and the facts so that we may ascertain the true position. The questions tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, East and myself should have extracted all that information. The fact that it was not given to us serves only to increase suspicion, and that does no one any good. The sooner that this matter is cleared up once and for all, the better it will be. It seems to farmers and to my right hon. and hon. Friends that it was the Prime Minister's intention that Northern Ireland should not suffer. It appeared from statements made by various Government spokesmen before the quota was arrived at that it was the Government's intention that Northern Ireland should not suffer, yet it has suffered to a much greater extent than any other part of the United Kingdom. The figures have not been forthcoming to prove the Government's contention or that of the farmers. Why cannot we have the figures if the Government have nothing to fear?

2.49 am
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

In his characteristically lucid and painstaking, albeit somewhat brief, exposition of the order the Minister referred to the anxieties that had been expressed at earlier stages of debate in regard to article 3 of the order, the seed potato levy. It is natural that there should be these anxieties. After all, Parliament is imposing upon a class of persons a levy and directing the sums which that levy will produce to be applied either by the Government themselves or by some public body. It is a matter that naturally excites more curiosity if the product of the levy is to be used through a body that is not itself directly an organ of government.

I realise that the Minister has given an assurance that before executive action is taken in implementation of article 3 there will be an opportunity for those of us who are interested to understand more clearly what is in the Government's mind and the way in which the moneys raised will be expended, not to mention the general outlines of the scheme which would be regarded as appropriate. Nevertheless, I hope the Minister will think it worthwhile not only to engage upon those consultations but to put forward in definite form an outline of the scheme as the Government expect it to work when the levy is in place, for there is certainly considerable confusion and probably misunderstanding at the moment on the subject.

A day or two ago I was reading, as is my custom, Farming Life; there is no reason for the Minister to look so sceptical at that declaration. In Farming Life of 12 May I read an article entitled: Cash boost for potato co-op". It begins with the announcement that An Ulster potato co-operative is to receive a cash boost from the Government. Actually, apparently, it is not to be from the Government but no doubt from the product of the levy which is under consideration. Then there is a reference to a gentleman who is the chairman of something called Expotato who had announced at his annual general meeting that the co-op would receive some of the funds of the Seed Potato Marketing Board. This is a curious statement in view of the fact that to the best of my understanding the Seed Potato Marketing Board is no longer in operation, so I can only assume that the reference must have been to the product of the levy and scheme which will be instituted under article 3. This gentleman Mr. Peden, would not say how much this would be". However, I read in a later paragraph: Farming Life understands that the sum of money involved is in excess of £50,000, but that it will not be available for some months. This is the sort of information that is trickling out to those who have a direct interest in the seed potato industry, in the levy which will be imposed upon growers, and in the use to which the levy will be put. This seems to strengthen the case for the Government to produce as soon as possible, in whatever may be the appropriate form, an indication of the type of scheme, an estimate of the sums which will be raised by way of levy and the manner in which that levy will be expended.

Perhaps the Minister would confirm that although the body through which the activity will be promoted, Seed Potato Promotions (Northern Ireland) Limited, is for convenience in the form of a private company—I am quoting what the Minister said in a letter that he kindly wrote to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) on 2 May—in spite of that, the accounts and a regular report by the organisation will be available to Members of the House so that we can judge and, if necessary, debate the way in which sums raised under statutory authority are being expended. That is the most substantial element of the order.

I make no apology for expressing anxieties about the degree of information that we so far have upon the operation of the scheme. I hope that my suggestions are acceptable to the Minister.

2.55 am
Mr. Butler

I am glad that we have been able to examine the provisions in the order again. I shall try to answer hon. Members, as I promised.

I shall start where the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) finished—on the question of the seed potato levy. I smiled at the right hon. Gentleman's reference to his farming reading only because I wondered whether he read the type of newspaper that suggests intrigue between brothers in agricultural matters. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman was referring to that, but the article to which he referred had nothing to do with the order. It was concerned with the possible ways in which the residual assets of the now defunct Seed Potato Marketing Board should be disposed of. The levy is not involved.

The right hon. Gentleman acknowledged assurances that I gave in Committee and repeated clearly tonight. Of course, it is up to whoever has responsibility for agriculture to decide exactly what form the consultation should take, but it makes sense to agree to something on the lines of what the right hon. Gentleman suggests. I have made it clear that we are dealing only with enabling legislation.

Article 3 states the purposes for which the levy would be used. That goes some way towards clarifying the points upon which the right hon. Gentleman sought assurances.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) asked about the cost of Seed Potato Promotions (Northern Ireland) Ltd. That has been made public in terms of grant aid and about £130,000 in each of the last two years is involved. The hon. Gentleman made some extremely important points, which will need to be studied about the growing, development and marketing of seed potatoes. This is not the time to deal with that since it is not relevant to enabling powers to raise a levy.

Mr. William Ross

Did the £130,000 come from the residue of the old Seed Potato Marketing Board funds? Why are Seed Potato Marketing Board funds, which came from all producers, now to benefit only Expotato, which is limited to a small number of growers?

Mr. Butler

The answer to the first question is no. The grant did not come from the residual assets of the Seed Potato Marketing Board but from the special aid made available in those past two years to Northern Ireland agriculture and on the last occasion, I believe, at the special request of the Ulster Farmers Union.

There is a fairly general requirement about how the funds are to be used. It is a matter of judgment. At this stage I shall say only that not all the funds would be used for Expotato. I shall ask my noble Friend Lord Lyell if he will make the matter somewhat clearer for the hon. Gentleman, but it is certainly not the intention to make those funds available for just one organisation such as Expotato.

Mr. Ross

Expotato now seems to be running into the same difficulties as troubled the old Seed Potato Marketing Board in that when the price of potatoes rises, they tend to disappear and Expotato does not get them. When the price falls and it is difficult to make a profit, all the potatoes arrive on Expotato's doorstep. Is it not a fact that Expotato was not able to meet its commitments last year and, as a result, lost a considerable amount of money?

Mr. Butler

I think that, like you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am known to be a fairly tolerant and lenient person, but neither Expotato nor the residual assets of the Seed Potato Marketing Board are the subjects of the order. The best way to deal with this problem is for my noble Friend to write to the hon. Gentleman about the question of the disposal of the residual assets. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman could pursue those points either on another occasion in this House or by correspondence.

The question of the export of milk to Great Britain was raised by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), and I wrote to him about it. As he rightly said, in the debate in Committee I referred to the export of dairy products and not precisely to the export of milk. The position is as I confirmed in my letter. The sale of Northern Ireland pasteurised milk in Great Britain is effectively prohibited by legislation. Discussions are at present taking place between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Agriculture to see whether the present mutually exclusive bans on pasteurised milk should be removed. I do not doubt but that some announcement will be made when, or if, a decision is reached.

Mr. Soley

The Minister is still skirting round the point that I made. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker) said in Committee: The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) said that milk producers in Northern Ireland were not permitted to export their milk to the mainland. I hope that the Minister will tell him that that is wrong. In his response to that invitation, the Minister said: It is absolutely true that dairy products are exported".—[Official Report, Northern Ireland Committee; 11 April 1984, c. 22.] I am giving the Minister the benefit of the doubt about the word "dairy", but I know that he used that word instead of milk because he knows that what I said in Committee was correct. In his letter, and in what he has just said, the Minister is skirting round that point. He must recognise that there is a difference in the treatment of the milk producers of Northern Ireland. Does he now acknowledge that that treatment should be brought into line with the rest of the United Kingdom? He must make his position clear.

Mr. Butler

I do not think that I have hidden anything. I stated that it was a matter of fact that dairy products are exported or transhipped. In respect of butter and other milk products, that is quite correct. It is a matter of fact that pasteurised milk is not permitted to be shipped at the present time. I confirmed that fact in my letter. The matter is under consideration. The point raised in Committee was, as I remember, whether or not the consumer subsidy—the subject of the order—would apply in respect of those exports to Great Britain. As I said in my letter, when and if the export of pasteurised milk is liberalised, the subsidy will be reviewed. There the matter rests. There is no question of hiding facts. I certainly do not intend that to be the case.

Mr. Soley

Is the Minister therefore saying that what I said in Committee is correct? The answer is a straight yes or no.

Mr. Butler

The hon. Gentleman said many things in Committee and I had to take him to task on some of them. I do not need to repeat what I have just said. If what the hon. Gentleman said in Committee is in tune with what I have said in the past few minutes in regard to indisputable matters of fact, of course he was right. If he is trying to make another point, we shall have to consider it separately. There is not much in this for the hon. Gentleman to pursue as much of it is factual and therefore indisputable.

It would probably be preferable for Northern Ireland dairy producers to be able to export pasteurised milk. That is a matter for discussion.

Mr. William Ross

The Minister said that if Northern Ireland farmers are allowed to export pasteurised milk, the Government will reconsider the consumer subsidy. Can we take it from that that he is really saying that once Northern Ireland is allowed to compete in the United Kingdom liquid milk market, the consumer subsidy that Northern Ireland enjoys will disappear?

Mr. Butler

I am not saying that. The point at issue is simple. It is whether, if milk was exported to Great Britain, the consumer subsidy, as legalised by the order, would be applicable to those quantities of milk. There is no question of the subsidy being withdrawn in respect of milk consumers in Northern ireland just because of liberalisation of trade.

The subjects of FEOGA grant and egg packing have been raised. It was made clear in the letter to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) that the funds under FEOGA are limited and that Northern Ireland gets its full share. There might be circumstances in which grant cannot be paid or is paid out in respect of one commodity at the expense of others.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East mentioned the use of the Lower Bann for tourism. The Government would like it to be used more. The tolls that the order enables to be raised should help to make it more attractive and to deal equitably with the boats that now use it. The lowering of Lough Neagh is a subject of which I am well aware. One would have hoped that the levels that now operate and which the authority is required to keep the water between, where possible, were thought right when they were instituted. Because of seasonal factors the water often rises much higher and flooding such as has been mentioned occurs. There is only one exit from the lough and it is difficult to see how much more quickly the water could be evacuated to avoid the problems of flooding.

The hon. Members for Londonderry, East and for Hammersmith mentioned the milk quota. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Londonderry, East does not feel that the Government have been open on the matter. He suggested that no full statement has been made, although he had the goodness to refer to my press statements. If he re-reads them and my speech at the Ulster Farmers Union dinner—I shall happily send him a copy—he will find that they are remarkably clear.

When the hon. Gentleman referred to a deal, I take it that he was referring to the deal between the regional Agriculture Ministers in general terms. Surely nothing could be more precise than the exact amount of milk that now forms Northern Ireland's quota. What could be more precise than 1,321 million litres? It is not 1,320 million litres or 1,300 million litres, but 1,321 million litres. That precise information was communicated shortly after the final decision was taken by the Ministers.

We made it absolutely clear that Northern Ireland had been given the full benefit of the 65,000 tonnes. We made clear the process of reasoning for the quota. Despite the apparent hardship that some farmers will suffer— no producer of any commodity will like having his production cut back by 9 per cent., 13 per cent. or even larger amounts in some instances—it was necessary for that to happen, for the reasons that we spelt out. We must make it clear that, although the reductions throughout the United Kingdom were on a par, if one compares Northern Ireland's position with, for instance, 1982, which was a record year, one finds that the quota for Northern Ireland is in excess of that by about 2 per cent.

Mr. Soley

Will the Minister confirm that if the application on behalf of Northern Ireland had been in line with that of the Republic of Ireland, the benefit would have been considerably more than 65,000 tonnes?

Mr. Butler

The Council of Ministers decided that the Republic of Ireland should have exceptional treatment and should be allowed a quota that gave it an increase on its 1983 production levels. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made it clear that the Government's initial view was that there should be no exception. He equally made it clear that if the Republic of Ireland was to get exceptional treatment, special consideration should be given to Northern Ireland. The outcome was that Northern Ireland was allocated the additional 65,000 tonnes, which, as I have said on several previous public occasions, flowed completely to Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman said that in theory at least the article in the order that deals with the subsidy could be used to improve incomes of Northern Ireland farmers. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my noble Friend the Minister responsible for agriculture are seriously considering the options for providing additional assistance if they believe that that is fully justified. I am happy to repeat that. The order could be one way of providing that extra assistance.

With regard to quotas, the hon. Member for Londonderry, East is right that unfortunately some details still have to be cleared up. My noble Friend has written to milk producers individually informing them of the way in which the levy will work, as precisely as he can at this stage. He has undertaken to provide them with more information as it becomes available, so I believe that he is doing everything that he reasonably and properly can to keep them informed.

I think that I have dealt with the points raised in the debate. I am glad to find that, as in Committee, there is no real objection to the order. Indeed, I suggest that there is generally a welcome for it. Therefore, I once more recommend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1984, which was laid before this House on 31st January, be approved.

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