HC Deb 10 April 1986 vol 95 cc331-3
5. Mr. Winnick

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is the total stock of beef, butter, skimmed milk and cereals held in European Economic Community intervention stores in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Gummer

As at 28 February 1986 stocks of beef, butter, skimmed milk powder and cereals held in United Kingdom intervention stores totalled 6.065 million tonnes.

Mr. Winnick

Is it not a crazy system in which so much food is removed in order to ensure that prices are kept higher than they would normally be? How much longer can the CAP be tolerated? As for all the items mentioned by the Minister, instead of selling them off to the Russians at much reduced prices, why should we not sell them off to pensioners and others on low incomes in our own country as well as perhaps, where appropriate, assisting people in the countries in Africa, where starvation and hunger prevail?

Mr. Gummer

On the last part of the question, the hon. Gentleman should talk to the aid agencies, all of which are concerned that we should not sell this food cheaply to countries in Africa and have asked us not to do so because it undermines the indigenous agriculture. The hon. Gentleman's information is 10 years out of date. As to why we do not sell it cheaply to our own people, we are completely in favour of doing that, and we do it where it does not mean a reduction in consumption under normal arrangements, as that would only increase the amount in store.

Mr. Key

Does my right hon. Friend agree that most of the problems in British agriculture are problems of success and that no one wants to reduce input costs more than farmers do? Will he seriously consider any request from the Natural Environment Research Council to carry out a major ecological study into the effects on our water and land of nitrogen and phosphorus? Will he consider financing, or helping to finance, such a project?

Mr. Gummer

That matter is constantly under review and we would appreciate any additional information from my hon. Friend. It is better to attempt to deal with the problems of plenty than with the problems of shortage, which we would have had without the CAP.

Mr. Deakins

As we did not have such disgracefully large stocks when Britain had its own agricultural policy, is not the only remedy after 10 or more years of the CAP, to get out of the CAP and have an independent policy?

Mr. Gummer

The present system was renegotiated by the Labour Government. Surpluses are a worldwide problem, and the idea that the hon. Gentleman can lay the blame for them at the door of the Common Market is sheer nonsense. If we returned to deficiency payments it would cost us nearly twice as much as the present system.

Mr. Marlow

What was the value of the 6 million tonnes, and how much did the British taxpayer have to pay last year in intervention and stockholding costs in advance of sale of these commodities from store?

Mr. Gummer

I shall be happy to answer the second part of my hon. Friend's question if he will put it down separately. The value of the present stores is £387 million of butter, £240 million of beef, £41 million of skimmed milk and £692 million of cereals.

Mr. Evans

How much of the foodstuffs held in intervention stores in the United Kingdom are unfit for human consumption? If the Minister does not have the figures now, will he supply them to me later?

Mr. Gummer

One reason for the high cost of keeping those goods in intervention is that we are keeping them so that they will be fit for human consumption. I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's point carefully.

Mr. Livsey

Does the Minister agree that he was incorrect to state on television on Sunday that the disposal of butter and beef has caused similar problems of reduction of price for European consumers, when it is well known that the elasticity of demand for beef differs from that of butter, and that a small reduction in the price of beef to our consumers would result in a large increase in beef consumption?

Mr. Gummer

I do not agree that what I said on television on Sunday was wrong; nor do I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point.

Mr. Home Robertson

As next year's surpluses are already growing in the fields, does the Minister accept the Government's responsibility to help agriculture to reduce production before the surpluses become bigger? Before there are any more cut-price bargain offers to Libya, Russia or anywhere else, may we have an undertaking that the poor people of Britain will at least have first refusal on the surpluses?

Mr. Gummer

In reply to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I refer him to my reply to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). Wherever possible, the Government are determined, without increasing the amount of goods in store, to help British people. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is true, and it is no good his stirring it up for party political reasons. In reply to the hon. Gentleman's first point, we cannot stop the amount that is being grown this year, because, as the hon. Gentleman says, it is already in the ground. The Government's policy is to arrive at a common agricultural policy which much more closely matches supply with demand.

Mr. Colin Shepherd

In dealing with the problem of disposing of surpluses internally, will my right hon. Friend bear carefully in mind, and demonstrate the point adequately to Labour Members, that when beef was introduced to pensioners in the early 1970s by the beef token scheme it very nearly wrecked the poultry industry? Action in one sector can have a devastating knock-on effect in another.

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend is perfectly right. I hope he will agree that when we tried to introduce the Christmas butter scheme people bought the butter at the reduced price, put it into their freezers, and as a result did not buy ordinary butter, and we took a lot of extra butter, at a high price, into the very intervention stores to which Labour Members object.