HC Deb 17 December 1987 vol 124 cc1216-8
1. Mr. Callaghan

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the outcome of recent discussions in the European Community on the common agricultural policy.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John MacGregor)

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reported to the House on Tuesday 8 December on the outcome of the European Council held in Copenhagen. I regret that final agreement could not be reached there on the issue of agricultural stabilisers, despite the support that had been built up for that approach in negotiations during the autumn. The main issues in these negotiations are now clear. I am, however, ready to make further efforts with my colleagues in the Agriculture Council on any issues, such as set-aside, where that Council can contribute to preparing the way for the resumed European Council on II and 12 February, and to increasing the chances of agreement there.

Mr. Callaghan

I thank the Minister for that reply. In view of the huge EEC mountains of beef, butter and flour, which are sold to countries outside the EEC at cheap rates or are allowed to rot, is it the intention of the Minister and the Government to see that the old and the needy in this country, and in my constituency in particular, are given free food hampers from that mountain this year?

Mr. MacGregor

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is right to get the surpluses and mountains down. That is the purpose of the discussion on stabilisers and the current discussions, which go wider than that issue.

Agreement has been reached in the Council that individual member states can introduce a free food scheme under the regulations that have been agreed. It is a complex matter. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we introduced a free food scheme last year. There were many criticisms of that scheme. We are now holding urgent discussions with the charitable organisations which participated last year to assess the implications of the regulations that have just been agreed. We were criticised last year for some of the effects of the scheme, which resulted from the haste with which it had to be introduced. Therefore, it is important that we have discussions with the charitable organisations.

Mr. Boswell

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is required in Europe is a balanced package involving stabilisers, set-aside and other measures, including the welcome environmental developments that my right hon. Friend has pioneered in Europe, and on which he is to be congratulated?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his concluding remarks. I agree that a balance is required — a balance in stabilisers to reduce the surpluses, a balance in proposals to reduce and depreciate the shocks, and, of course, a balance in the other matters to which he referred, such as set-aside and the environmental measures. We have made a good deal of progress, especially on the set-aside scheme, with which I am very much involved. I hope that we can reach agreement on it early in the new year.

Mr. Geraint Howells

Is the Minister in a position to inform the House of the latest developments regarding the sheepmeat proposals?

Mr. MacGregor

The sheepmeat proposals have not been discussed since the Agriculture Council meeting prior to the European summit. At the moment, therefore, the position is twofold. First, discussions on stabilisers in relation to sheepmeat must be taken up again in the new year, and we shall have to see what happens in relation to the summit meeting on 11 and 12 February. Secondly, there is to be a wider review of the sheepmeat regime, on which we have not yet embarked, at the Council of Agriculture Ministers meeting.

Mr. Marland

I know that my right hon. Friend will agree that the main problem with the enormous cost of the CAP is the storing of surpluses. May I urge him, as others have done, to take every possible measure to reduce the enormous amount of food that is in store? If it cannot be given away to hon. Members' constituents, can my right hon. Friend think of some way of disposing of it elsewhere? Surely the object of the CAP is to maintain the rural communities, not to maintain intervention storekeepers.

Mr. MacGregor

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that the objective should be to maintain our efficient agriculture and its contribution to rural communities to ensure that we meet as many of our food requirements as possible, competitively and efficiently, without leading to the problem of surpluses. We can reduce the surpluses in a variety of ways. Indeed, I am glad to say that as a result of some of the measures that have already been taken by the Council of Ministers, the level of intervention stocks for products such as butter, cereals and skimmed-milk powder is coming down substantially. However, we need to take further measures to ensure that they continue to come down and that surpluses are not built up to replace the stocks that we are trying to get rid of.

Dr. David Clark

Will the Minister confirm that under the new free food for the needy scheme the administrative costs of charities can be met out of European Commission funds? Is he really telling the House that needy people in France, Germany and Italy will receive free food, but that those in Britain will not? If that is the case, he is the No. 1 nominee for the Mr. Scrooge of this Christmas.

Mr. MacGregor

It is correct that some administrative costs can be met under the current regulations. However, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise that last year the needy in Britain who benefited from the scheme did so to a much greater extent than those in many other European countries.

However, the problems are substantial. First, there is only about £10 million of food potentially available in this country. Therefore, there are problems in targeting and deciding who should be the beneficiaries. There are many practical problems, such as distribution. There are also problems relating to the way in which we implement the regulations, if we decide to do so. We are urgently exploring these problems with the organisations that were involved with us last time.

Mr. Bill Walker

When my right hon. Friend is considering the European common agricultural policy with his European colleagues, will he bear in mind the representations that he has received from the National Farmers Union of Scotland, and especially those from Mr. Ian Grant, the president of the Scottish NFU? Those proposals are not only realistic, because they accept that change is essential and necessary, but seek to ensure that the United Kingdom, and especially the livestock sector in Scotland, receives fair treatment.

Mr. MacGregor

I had some extremely useful discussions with the president of the Scottish NFU when I was in Edinburgh recently. I see him quite regularly and I agree that he is taking a realistic and sensible approach to CAP reforms. Yes, we keep in mind the needs of our livestock sector, and that is why we have been fighting so strongly for the removal of the ceilings proposed by the Commission on headage payments on ewe premiums which would adversely affect our livestock sector in the less-favoured areas.