HC Deb 04 December 1986 vol 106 cc1063-5
1. Mr. Sean Hughes

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how much butter is currently stored in intervention in the United Kingdom; how much butter is imported annually into the United Kingdom; and what steps he is taking to improve the marketing of British butter.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

The United Kingdom currently has about 260,000 tonnes of butter in intervention. Imports have declined in each of the last five years and stood at 138,700 tonnes in 1985. The marketing of British butter is primarily a matter for the industry itself, but the Government have taken the initiative of establishing Food From Britain, with substantial Government funding, and are pressing for reform of the Community's milk regime in order to secure a viable long-term future for the United Kingdom dairy industry.

Mr. Hughes

Can the Minister confirm that butter stocks in British intervention stores have increased by a staggering 33 per cent. in the past six months? That being so, will the Government make a quantity of butter available, free, to old-age pensioners this Christmas?

Mr. Gummer

If we could find a way to ensure that the butter that was given to deserving people did not mean that there was less butter sold and, therefore, more going into intervention, we would be happy to do it. I am looking carefully at proposals, but I have not found a way to do it. I would like to, but I cannot see that it is sensible to increase the stocks of butter by providing at great expense the sort of system which we have done before.

Mr. Colin Shepherd

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the New Zealanders and other importers have access to the United Kingdom market but do not have the right to sell? They must sell their butter on better performance and better price. Therefore, it is the English butter industry which is failing to sell its British butter production.

Mr. Gummer

It is important that the British butter industry should seek to sell to British housewives. It is difficult to talk about the fact that we are self-sufficient if we are putting so many tonnes of butter into intervention while other people, not just New Zealanders, are selling their butter on our market even though, in many cases, that butter is more expensive than ours. New Zealand butter was more expensive than British butter in Tesco's last Monday, and it is only 1p less expensive in Sainsbury's today.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. John Hume.

Mr. John Home Robertson


Mr. John David Taylor

It is not the first time you have made that mistake, Mr. Speaker. Other people in Northern Ireland have suffered worse for the same mistake.

As the stocks of butter are a fundamental reason why an urgent reform of the common agricultural policy is required, is the Minister not surprised that a reform of the CAP is not on the agenda for the meeting of the Heads of the EEC Governments when they meet later this month?

Mr. Gummer

The basic arguments about the reform of the agricultural policy are on the agenda for the meeting of the Agriculture Ministers next week, when we will try to get an answer to our dairy and beef problems and the structures. That is where the negotiations ought to take place, and that is where we shall take the steps which this presidency is determined to achieve.

Mr. McLoughlin

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential that we keep confidence in the dairy industry?—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."] Is he not disturbed by the remarks of Sir Stephen Roberts, the chairman of the Milk Marketing Board, this morning, who said—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."]

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman must paraphrase not quote.

Mr. McLoughlin

The chairman of the Milk Marketing Board is predicting that there will be a cut of 11 per cent. in the British dairy quota. He is also predicting the loss of thousands of jobs in the United Kingdom creamery industry. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such scaremongering, ahead of any consultations and any proposals, is damaging the British dairy industry?

Mr. Gummer

The kind of statements that are sometimes made frighten people entirely unnecessarily. There needs to be a more sensible balance between supply and demand in the dairy industry, and it has to be achieved on a time scale that is acceptable to the industry. We must also ensure that it is fair across the whole of Europe. That is what this Government are determined to achieve, and that is what we shall be fighting for on Monday.

Mr. Home Roberston

As the British presidency is about to finish with an all-time record butter mountain that is costing £1 million a day, is the Minister aware that the whole House hopes that he will be able to redeem his reputation at next week's Council meeting? The Opposition would strongly support effective action to control over-production, but we expect the Minister not to sell out Britain's interests, as he did in 1984, otherwise this particular turkey is likely to be set aside long before Christmas.

Mr. Gummer

We obtained an extremely good deal for Britain's interests in 1984. We have never sold out Britain's interests. The only people who sell out Britain's interests are those who suggest that this Government do not stand four square behind the consumer and the farmer in Britain.

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