HC Deb 11 December 1985 vol 88 cc922-8
Mr. Speaker

Statement—Mr. Jopling.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

There seem to be points of order every day.

Mr. Winnick

Is it not a coincidence that there always seems to be at least one statement on an Opposition day? It is most unfair to those right hon. and hon. Members who are trying to get into the debate.

Mr. Speaker

I am not responsible for that.

3.41 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jopling)

With permission, I will make a statement on the meeting of the Council of Agriculture Ministers of the European Community on 9 and 10 December. I represented the United Kingdom, accompanied by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State in the Commons.

The council agreed in principle, subject to the opinion of the European Parliament, to extend the quota system for sugar for the five years 1986–87 to 1990–91. For the first two years, the A and B quotas will remain at their existing levels, and the Council will take a further decision by the end of 1987 on quotas for the remaining three years. The maximum rates of levy on A and B sugar will also remain unchanged for the first two years, except for a small additional levy designed to recoup, over the coming five years, the deficit that has accumulated on the levy account. The additional levy will be shared between member states so that those who have produced most quota sugar will pay the most. As a result, the rates of levy will average 1.31 per cent. of the present intervention price for the Community as a whole, while in the United Kingdom it will be set at 0.8 per cent.

The decision to fix the quotas for two years, instead of five years as the Commission proposed, is helpful. In making its further decision, the Council will be able to take account of developments, in particular the expected increase in the use of sugar for industrial products.

The Council agreed to postpone until a later meeting further detailed discussion on proposals on sugar for the chemical industry, and for a revised starch regime.

The Council also adopted a proposal intended to fulfil a commitment made during the price-fixing negotiations to extend the annual sheep premium to goats in certain regions, and also to untupped ewes of certain breeds in mountain areas. The premium is to be paid at 80 per cent. of the full rate. I made it clear that the proposal on ewes is unsatisfactory, since it does not cover all the breeds and regions which are affected. Accordingly, I voted against the proposal.

There was further discussion of a measure setting minimum standards for battery cages for laying hens. Although the standards fell well short of what I would wish, I recognised that they were the best on which agreement could be reached. The Danish Minister, however, was unable to accept the text at the present time, and the matter will be taken up at the next meeting of the Council on 19 December.

Finally, the Council discussed the Commission's proposal to ban the use of hormonal substances for fattening cattle. All other member states were prepared immediately to accept such a ban from 1 January 1988. I continued to argue that, before reaching a decision, the Council should have available the scientific evidence from the Lamming committee and should take full account of the implications of a ban for imports of meat and meat products. I also urged the Council to adhere to its previous decision to adopt such a measure only by unanimity.

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making the statement. I agree with him that it is most disappointing that the Council has set aside the work of the scientific body that it set up. That does not bode too well for the future. Will the right hon. Gentleman be a little more explicit about what will happen if the majority vote goes against him next Thursday? What does he intend to do? He is reported in several newspapers as having said that in his view it is illegal. Does that mean, as the Parliamentary Secretary, his hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Mrs. Fenner) hinted but would not expatiate upon, that he will refer the matter to the European Court? Furthermore, how has the recent Heads of Government decision on voting affected the matter?

Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the additional beet sugar levy will achieve its object, which is to make the sugar regime self-sufficient and self-financing? The levy has not managed to do that yet, and I note that even the highest rate of levy falls below what the Council suggested initially should be paid by everyone. Will the regime be self-financing? If not, how much will it cost to finance it?

However, that is secondary to the problem that the continuation of quotas has not tackled. We are 3 million tonnes in surplus in the sugar regime throughout the Community. Will not the adoption of the new quotas perpetuate that situation?

Did the right hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to discuss the near trade war that exists between France and ourselves in the ewe trade? I am sure that he will agree that that will have severe effects on British sheep farmers. What will he do next week? He will have the good wishes of the House if he promotes British opposition with the utmost vigour.

Is there a national derogation so that countries that wish to impose higher standards in the keeping of battery hens than the Council of Ministers feels disposed to agree will be able to do so?

Mr. Jopling

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. He mentioned the continued refusal of the Commission to receive the final reports of the Lamming committee. I share his disappointment.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the possibility of a majority vote. I drew the attention of the Council of Ministers to previous decisions—the first in 1981 and another this year—that changes in the regime should be made only by unanimity. I told the Council that I continued to hold that view.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the additional beet sugar levy would enable the fund to reach equilibrium. The deficit in the fund to which the Commission referred is no less than 400 million ecu. The extra levy is intended to eliminate the deficit over five years.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a 3 million tonnes surplus in the Community. He will know that during the negotiations I have argued that because our B quota was reduced to 10 per cent. of the A quota, as a result of two bad-weather seasons in the early 1980s there ought to be an adjustment in the other direction because the under production no longer occurs. I believe that I was right and that I had widespread support in that argument.

I share the hon. Gentleman's worry about the way in which our ewemeat exports are being hindered in France. I discussed the matter with my French colleague and told him that I believed that the measures being taken were intolerable and ought to be lifted forthwith.

The intention of the proposed agreement about battery hens is that we should set minimum standards. It is open to some countries to go further, if they wish.

Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the arrangement that the sugar regime should be renegotiated after two years is sensible and will be well received in the industry, because it is given time to get itself organised to take advantage of the new opportunities that should be opening up for it?

Will my right hon. Friend maintain the closest co ordination with his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry and with the sugar industry so that we maximise the possibility of the sugar conversion industries being deployed in this country, to our benefit, whenever possible?

Will my right hon. Friend also pursue the difficulties over the ewe trade with the greatest vigour? It is essential that the confidence of our sheepmeat producers is sustained.

Mr. Jopling

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said about the possibility of reconsidering sugar quotas in two years. We have found the best possible solution, bearing in mind that the new opportunities for the industrial uses of sugar are not yet available. I hope that we shall be nearer that point in two years. With my colleagues, I shall do my best to ensure that industrial processes are taken up in the Community, especially in Britain—that is why I have taken the stance that I have.

My hon. Friend asks me to take vigorous steps to ensure that the hindrances to the ewemeat trade are lifted. I undertake to do that.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

My right hon. Friend referred to his representations to the French Government about their wholly illegal ban on British sheepmeat, but he has not told us what the French Minister replied. What did he reply, and did my right hon. Friend say that he would impose a ban on French turkeys which will remain unless and until the ban on sheepmeat is removed?

Mr. Jopling

When I raised the matter with the French Minister, he told me that he had received a message from the Commission that in the Commission's view the steps being taken were illegal. He said that he would reply to me within two days. That takes us to today. I shall be interested to hear the reply. I hope that the illegal action will be stopped, but my hon. Friend cannot expect me to announce in the House that I intend to take illegal steps. That is something that no Minister has ever announced to the House.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)

In view of what the Minister has said today, will he consider the possibility of taking the ban on ewemeat to the European Court if no action is taken by next week? He would certainly have our support for that, because we believe that the obduracy of the French Government is not in the spirit of the European Community.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is being said in Europe that the hormones ban will begin on 1 January 1988?

Mr. Jopling

We shall watch the ewemeat situation carefully. We shall keep in mind the possibility of referring the matter to the court. No decision on hormones has been taken, but I confirm that the latest Commission proposal is that a ban should come into force on 1 January 1988.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

For the reasons outlined in Monday night's debate, does not the hormone problem go far beyond trenbolone and zeranol? Is not a matter of principle involved? What does Mr. Andriessen say to the question, "Why did you not take into account the likely results of the Lamming committee?"? Are we not reaching a time when, far from the days of Lardinois, in order to curry favour with frankly ill-informed opinions in the Bundestag or elsewhere, the commissioners are prepared to override scientific evidence? Is not that a matter of principle on which the Government should stand firm?

Mr. Jopling

I asked questions of the commissioner yesterday in almost precisely the terms in which the hon. Gentleman asked me questions today. The commissioner said that he thought it opportune now to disband the Lamming committee. That is a political decision. The hon. Gentleman does not have to convince me of the rightness of his case, because I have put exactly that case for weeks, and I am equally exasperated by the Commission's attitude.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

If the French continue to ban exports of British sheepmeat, does my right hon. Friend realise that he will come under increasing pressure from our farmers to ban imports of French turkeys, particularly before Christmas? If my right hon. Friend is unwilling to consider taking such action, what other steps can he take to help the British sheep trade?

Mr. Jopling

I am prepared to look—I always do so, anyway — at whether all importations from all countries are strictly within the law, but my hon. Friend will not expect me to tell the House that I intend to take illegal steps.

Mr. Eric Deakins (Walthamstow)

When will the Agriculture Council take action against the extension of Commission competence involved in the fixing of cereal prices this year by which cereal prices have been determined by the Commission despite a West German veto that they should not be reduced?

Mr. Jopling

I regret that the matter is in the hands of the Commission. The hon. Gentleman will remember the circumstances which led to a German use of the Luxembourg compromise in the middle months of this year. We discussed this issue briefly on Monday, when the Presidency asked the Council of Ministers whether any members of that body had changed their view from the time when the veto was applied. There was silence in the room and, clearly, there continues to be a stalemate. In the meantime, the Commission is fulfilling its duty to fill the vacuum.

Mr. Eric Cockeram (Ludlow)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement that neither Britain's A nor B quotas will be increased will cause great disappointment? Is he further aware that his statement that there is no guarantee that our quota will be increased even in the third year will cause still more disappointment. Does he accept that the needs of the chemical industry are such, if Britain is to maintain its biotechnical lead, that they must be satisfied, and is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the supply is available at the right place?

Mr. Jopling

The British Sugar Corporation and beet growers recognised that a possibly extended market for sugar resulting from industrial processes was not yet with us. Under the previous arrangements, we renegotiated quotas for five years. We now have a helpful step forward in that we shall have the opportunity to look at the quotas again after two years, when we shall know much better what industrial processes are being established. We shall then have a stronger case to argue for an increased British quota if those industrial processes are in the process of being constructed.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Switching from beet to cane sugar, may we be told whether there has been a resolution of the dispute between the EEC and the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries on the future prices of cane sugar? If there has been, then, in the light of the two-year moratorium, is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the decisions reached at the Council are in accord with the objectives set out in the House of Commons resolution of 2 December?

Mr. Jopling

The dispute between the Community and the ACP countries was not discussed at the Council meeting this week. The hon. Gentleman will know that this situation follows a decision at a previous recent Council meeting at which the settlement which the Commissioner had negotiated with the ACP countries was strongly criticised by the Council of Ministers. 'That situation awaits resolution.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Is the Minister aware that the decision not to extend the ewe premium to all sheep breeds in our less-favoured areas is regarded in those areas as a serious failure of advocacy on his part? On what conceivable criteria were the breeds selected, other than apparently the fact that some are covered in his constituency?

Mr. Jopling

For the first time, as a result of my advocacy yesterday, the Commissioner has agreed to make a move on what I acknowledge to be a most unsatisfactory situation. I believe that we would have got a helpful move forward on the extension of breeds and areas if the Commissioner had been allowed to put down his amended proposal. The difficulty was that the matter was blocked by the French and German delegations, for reasons which had nothing whatever to do with the issue.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the result of the agreement on sugar is that the Community will continue to dump 3 million or more tonnes of sugar on to world markets, thus depressing the world price of sugar and the standard of living of many poor people throughout the world? Can he give an assurance that there will be no further increase in production in the Community as a result of the agreement?

Will he confirm that the proposal to provide an additional cane refining margin and thus reduce the price of sugar to cane producers has been abandoned?

Mr. Jopling

I hoped that my hon. Friend would be pleased that the Council of Ministers has agreed a scheme that will eliminate over five years the deficit of 400 million ecu from the sales of surplus sugar on the world market. Surely that will be a disincentive for dumping on that scale in future. I hope that it will be.

Sir Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's characteristically robust stand and his success in Brussels. I thank him for achieving an extension of the A and B quotas, at least for two years. Will he return and ask for more for the remainder of the five-year period, which I assume he was discussing? Secondly, I thank him for ensuring that we do not contribute largely to the crisis levy. After all, we did not create the crisis. Thirdly, there will be disappointment among sugar beet growers and in the British Sugar Association that we have still not achieved the higher quota to which we are surely entitled.

Mr. Jopling

I believe that the British Sugar Corporation and British sugar beet growers will be pleased that the option remains, which it would not have done otherwise, to increase our sugar quota, if it can be demonstrated in two years' time that the market for the extra production exists in new industrial processes. It would not have been possible to justify an increase in our quota by arguing that a new market was readily available now. That is one of the weaknesses of the case. We have made a major step forward because we shall be able to renew our claim, on which I have never given way, at a time when the arguments for it could be infinitely more compelling.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Did my right hon. Friend make it clear to the EEC that, in addition to us believing that a ban on hormones would be wrong, we think that the attitude of Commissioner Andriessen is nothing short of deplorable? Has he detected any change of attitude in the EEC along the lines of the excellent and sensible debate that took place in the Chamber on Monday night, which concluded that any legislation on hormones should be based on hard scientific reality and not on foolish emotion?

Mr. Jopling

I am sure that my hon. Friend would have approved of the line I took in the discussions. I said that no decision on a ban should be taken until we had the full scientific evidence, had arrived at the completion of the Commission's discussions with third countries to ascertain exactly what the implications would be, and knew with more certainty whether a ban could be enforced, which is not clear at this moment.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

What effect has the budget financial mechanism had on the Council in persuading it to produce plans which would discourage cereal farmers from planting cereals in the spring, which would lead to an increase in the surplus of cereals next year?

Mr. Jopling

I am sure that my hon. Friend, with the great attention that he pays to these matters, will be aware that there is a proposal from the Commission before the Council to deal with cereal surpluses in future. We have already discussed that once and I expect that we shall be discussing it again at the Council meeting on 19 December. I have no doubt that we shall at regular intervals in the months ahead, discuss further proposals to try to contain the cereal surplus.

Mr. John

Will the Minister recognise that the effect of adding to our sugar beet quotas will be to increase the surplus, currently standing at 200,000 tonnes in Britain, which is a larger amount than the biotechnology and chemical industries believe will be used in the mid-1990s? We are all keen to see the industrial use of sugar, but there is no point in adding to the sugar quota if all that we are doing is adding to the surplus.

Mr. Jopling

If we add together our home sugar beet production and imported ACP sugar production—there is some production volatility and there are seasonal differences—the total is close to total consumption. The amount of sugar that we export and the amount that we import are broadly in balance. If the capacity of the industrial market were to increase, an argument could be advanced to increase by a modest amount the British sugar quota.