HC Deb 09 November 1987 vol 122 cc113-36
Mr. Speaker

I must announce to the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

10.25 pm
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is a Standing Order of the House that the Scrutiny Committee—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly if they are not taking part in the debate?

Mr. Spearing

It is a Standing Order of the House that the Scrutiny Committee, of which I have the honour to be Chairman, reports to the House on matters relating to EEC legislation and makes recommendations for debate. On this topic we have made a report, which will be printed. It is the fourth report, HC 43 IV. The memorandum states: The Committee looks to the Government for additional information on these two issues in due course and any other clarification which seems necessary, and may then wish to report further. Last Wednesday, after the Committee had met, a further regulation was received from Brussels. It is the numbered regulation in the motion, No. 9138/87, on which, unfortunately, the Committee did not have an opportunity to report. Article 1 of that document refers to designated organisations. The Minister tabled a supplementary memorandum, which was requested by the Committee. It stated that he wished to point out to the House how the proposal differed from that on which earlier explanatory memoranda were based. He then listed the main points. However, I understand that the Commission has deposited yet another document, namely, No. 9227/87, which was a report on the previous working of the scheme, not a regulation for its adoption, which relates to part of the debate tonight. A paragraph on page 10 states: Organisations recognised by the Member State concerned or (if no recognition had been granted in that Member State to such organisations) the Commission would implement the programme in the relevant country. These organisations need not necessarily be charities. I raise this point of order because, unless the information is available to the House in the form of a report—which through an oversight is not in the second supplementary memorandum—the House will not be aware that it is possible, under the regulation, for a wider set of bodies, possibly statutory bodies, to be involved as designated organisations. That may have a bearing on the debate. Is it possible for the Minister to confirm that point? Unfortunately, his second explanatory memorandum is dated 11 November. He was a little ahead of time.

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

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am happy to agree with what the hon. Gentleman said. It will be understood by the House that I do not have control over the timing of documents as they emerge from Brussels. The hon. Gentleman rightly suggested that we should discuss the matter and that it is important that such discussions should take place before decisions are made by the Community. Therefore, I considered it right to put the documents before the House as soon as we received them. When we finally received the report in an acceptable form—in other words, in English—I put it before the House as soon as I could. In fact, I agreed it while out of London so that it should be before the House as quickly as it could be presented. The difficulty is that we have only what is before us. I have yet to receive confirmation from the Commission that it will lay regulations that will apply to any organisation, or whether there will be restrictions on those organisations. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman is perfectly right to draw attention to this and I would have hoped to do so in my own speech. It is better to have the debate before the decisions are made than to wait until one has all the answers, by which time the decisions will have been made.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the debate should proceed.

Mr. Gummer

I beg to move, That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 9138/87 on general rules for the supply of food from intervention stocks for distribution to the most deprived persons in the Community. We are debating both the past of this scheme and the proposals for the future in so far as we can decipher them from the various documents. I should like to confine myself to a few short comments to start with and, if the House will allow me, to give myself a little time at the end to answer the points that will have been raised. I am sure that that would be more helpful to hon. Members.

The House will remember that the United Kingdom Government were not enthusiastic about the terms of the original proposals. We said that it would be extremely difficult to prove additionality in the decisions that were made and wondered how much effect that would have on the surpluses of food in store. We were concerned about the fact that we were to ask charities to carry out that work without any warning and in conditions for which they were totally unable to prepare.

We were especially concerned that the decisions were made irrespective of the individual and different needs of each country. It was in no grouching or miserable manner that we put forward those points, but we were unsuccessful in getting our colleagues in the European Community to accept them. On the other hand, having lost the day on the terms in which the proposals were put forward, we set out to try to make the exercise as successful as it could be within the terms under which we were able to operate. ln other words, we returned immediately, called together the charities that seemed to be the most obviously affected, and discussed the matter with them on the day after the decisions had been made. I returned from Brussels immediately.

As a result, the Commission's report shows that the United Kingdom spent about 45 per cent. of the amount of money that was spent in the Community as a whole. Indeed, we spent more of the available money than France, Germany and Spain put together. After us, those countries were the three largest spenders. We did extremely well in trying to use the available resources, given the problems about which we had already warned the Community.

I wish to make three comments, although I shall say more in answer to any questions. First, I am second to none in my considerable admiration for the charities' work in circumstances that were intolerable for them. They had to operate under wholly unsuitable conditions and immediately, without any advance warning, and they did so remarkably. It would be invidious to refer to any particular charity, although the Salvation Army especially was a tower of strength in areas that would not otherwise have been covered. It also helped other charities. Several other charities had a national distribution, such as the Women's Royal Voluntary Service and the Red Cross, and were extremely helpful and I should like to thank them.

Secondly, I am extremely doubtful whether the scheme had any real effect on the surpluses. I do not regard this as an effective system for reducing surpluses. To do that effectively one must prove at least some additionality and that the food that was given out from surplus stores did not replace food that would otherwise have been bought. There is considerable doubt about that. Certainly some food was not simply replacement food, but I do not think that it was of sufficient quantity to make this a sensible scheme for removing the surpluses.

Thirdly, we are a country that has every right to criticise and propose any future scheme, because we did everything in our power to make the last scheme work, although we did not like it, objected to its terms and tried to have them changed. We cannot be faulted on our efforts to make this work. Therefore, it is reasonable for us to say that we have considerable doubts about the scheme, as we understand it, proposed by the Commission. We remind the House that the scheme will run permanently. It is not merely for an emergency. It does not appear to have benefited from the many lessons that we could have taught the Commission. It does not appear to meet either the budgetary worries or the additionality concerns about which most people would be anxious. It is difficult to see any sign that the scheme overcomes the difficulties that our charities found and—I do not wish to put words into their mouths—they are hesitant about joining in any future scheme. The scheme does not seem to meet their major problem, which is that they do not see, as the Government do not see, that proper account has been taken of changes that would enable the scheme to make a proper contribution towards helping the most needy.

Obviously, there would be some help. It is difficult to envisage a scheme that would not do something, but it is difficult to see, even in the suggested changes, that any future scheme would make a contribution commensurate with its cost and the diversion of effort of anybody who carried it out. The scheme would have to be carried out by somebody—whoever we are allowed to suggest—who is likely already to be doing something useful. Therefore, if that somebody carries it out, he may well find himself having to carry out the scheme instead of what he might otherwise be doing.

For that reason, we are at present criticising the Commission for seeming not to have learnt the lessons that we could have presented to it. We are worried that the scheme does not solve the problems that have been shown, not only to the Government, but to the charities. Therefore, we enter these discussions with considerable doubts that the Commission can produce a scheme that will meet our needs. That seems to be a not unreasonable position to uphold, although, naturally, if something happened to make the scheme more effective we would consider it carefully, as we did the original scheme. Our bona fides are clear from our previous efforts.

If the House gives me permission, I shall be happy to answer any questions that are raised, but I think it would be best for the House first to discuss the proposals.

10.37 pm
Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I beg to move, at the end of the Question to add and noting that the earlier free food scheme of 1987 led to considerable difficulties for charities responsible for food distribution and caused inconvenience and hardship to many of the intended beneficiaries, calls upon Her Majesty's Government to ensure that the new scheme takes note of this earlier experience and to devise means of guaranteeing that the distributive process does not lead to a financial loss to the charities involved and that the recipients are treated equitably.". The official Opposition welcome the opportunity to debate the distribution of so-called free food from EEC intervention stores and we trust that the Minister will reflect our views when the matter is discussed at the Council of Agriculture Ministers on 16 and 17 November.

Perhaps we should first dispel once and for all the myth of free food. That term is a misnomer because the food has already been paid for four times over by its recipients. We should do well to remind ourselves that, first, the recipients have paid a high price in the shops because of the artificially high EC support systems; secondly, they pay as taxpayers for the cost of the food going into intervention; thirdly, they pay for the storage of the food in intervention; and, fourthly, they contribute towards the cost of the £70 million for the operation of the concessionary food schemes. Therefore, I hope that the House will accept that the term free food is merely shorthand for the scheme and that the food is far from free.

As the House knows, the Labour party views the common agricultural policy of the European Community with great dismay. It seems to set prices so high that food cannot be sold in the open market, which is crazy. It results in the scenarios that we face today, and regularly. It strikes us as ludicrous that in order to reduce food surpluses we have to feed them to animals, contemplate destroying them, or sell them to the Russians at knockdown prices. I am sure that the whole House agrees that that is not a sensible policy.

The Minister rightly pointed out that the item that the Government and this country gave most effectively in the last concessionary scheme was butter, but we still have 200,000 tonnes of butter in intervention stores in this country and more than 1.25 million tonnes in the Community at large, so the fact that some of that surplus food might find its way into the mouths of 5 million of our more deprived fellow citizens is laudable and sensible.

It is worth reflecting on what a condemnation of the Government it is that we have 5 million deprived people. The Government have a deplorable record of assisting the less well-off. I recall the miserly 40p pension rise last year for single pensioners and the fact that 700,000 of our poorest people will be still worse off under the new social security system that the Government are introducing next April.

The free food scheme is a palliative measure in the fight against poverty, and, in the short term, we support it. In the long term, surely the objective must be for all the people of the Community to have incomes that are sufficient for their food requirements.

As the Minister said, we are discussing what is essentially a mark II version of the concessionary scheme. We must learn the lessons of the previous one. I hope that the Minister will bear in mind the positive suggestions that I am sure will come from both sides of the House. Perhaps we should remind ourselves that the new scheme is crucially different in several respects from the previous one. The Minister was right to draw our attention to one of the main differences—that of duration. The previous scheme existed for a mere 10 weeks; This one is envisaged as being permanent, so the responsibility to get it right is paramount, and we should not duck it.

Secondly, this is a narrower scheme, restricted entirely to stocks from the intervention fund, which was not the case last time. What lessons can be gleaned from the previous experience? The efforts of the various charities that were involved last time were commendable. As the Minister said, they did everything asked of them in intolerable circumstances, and the successes of the scheme were entirely to their credit. I regret that many of the dedicated workers of the various charities ran into problems which were the Government's fault and not their own. They were at the sharp end—angry pensioners had queued in the cold for hours, only to be told sometimes that supplies had run out.

Why did the Government work solely through the charities? My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has already pointed out that the EEC directive does not, and did not, require them to do so. "Designated organisations" were the relevant term.

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not want to mislead the House. As we understand it, the future scheme does not use only charities, but the previous scheme required us to work through them. There was no way that the Government could have avoided doing so.

Dr. Clark

I thank the Minister for his remarks. It now appears that although the Government's explanatory memorandum on the new scheme speaks only of charities, the definition is not to be so narrow. EC document 9277 talks about recognised organisations and mentions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South said, that those organisations need not necessarily be charities. We could discuss with the local authorities whether they could help. Local authorities have much of the expertise to identify the recipients, which was one of the points of consternation last time, and they have the means to assist in the distribution. The House will recollect that one of the main criticisms of the previous scheme was that in some parts of the country distribution worked very effectively, while in other parts it hardly worked at all.

If the Minister asks the local authorities to assist and to expend money on the scheme, will he give the House an assurance that such expenditure will be free from rate-capping calculations? If we follow the route that I have suggested, anything other than exemption would be crazy.

Do the Government intend to explore the possibility of using the expertise and facilities of the food retailers? They have an efficient system of distribution for all types of food to all corners of the kingdom. That is one thing that Britain does in an exemplary fashion. That might save many of the unnecessary and fruitless journeys made by pensioners on the previous occasion. It would also ensure a uniform distribution system, which I am sure that the Minister and the House want to see in the new scheme.

In our positive amendment we emphasise that the Government should not expect the various charities to bear the cost of administering the scheme, as they were forced to do previously. Age Concern incurred costs of almost £200,000 for the distribution of food in the previous system. Will the Minister ensure in any new scheme that such expenditure will be reimbursed? It is permissible for such payments to be made from national sources if the EC will not foot the bill.

Will the Secretary of State have discussions with the Secretary of State for Social Services? The negative attitude—I can use no other words— of the DHSS last year caused annoyance to many people. The House will recall that on 27 January the DHSS sent an insensitive circular to all its offices. In essence, it urged non-co-operation and reminded DHSS staff that responsibility for distribution and publicity and for identifying recipients rested with the charities alone. I hope that in future there will be a more positive attitude.

Perhaps the Minister could tell us what discussions he has had with the charities that will be or could be involved, and whether any charities that co-operated last time will not co-operate in future. Perhaps he will also tell us whether any new charities that did not co-operate last time will consider co-operating this time. Will the Minister ensure that the necessary distribution network is set in place before there is any publicity? Last time there was so much publicity prior to the establishment of the network that many people were disappointed. I hope that we can get the distribution network right before the Ministry pushes ahead with its publicity.

The Labour party welcomes the concept of redistributing surplus food to the needier members of the community. That is much more sensible than selling it to the Russians. We hope that the Government will work positively to devise such a system. I thought that the Minister's speech was a little negative, but I hope that in the debate he will reflect on some of the points made to him by hon. Members.

The earlier scheme had considerable success due to the initiative of the charities involved and the dedication of their workers. The charities did the hard work and footed much of the bill, while the Government took the credit. The Minister looks a little surprised, but we got rather tired of seeing the Minister and his colleagues in funny hats doling out butter and sides of beef.

I do not want to dwell on the past. What Britain needs is a sensible agriculture and food policy, but until we have such a policy we call on the Government to introduce a system of concessionary food for our neediest citizens and to ensure a fair and equitable distribution. The Government must also guarantee that no charity loses financially in assisting them in providing that concessionary food.

10.50 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

I welcomed the tone of the Minister's speech because it has become obvious to most Conservative Members, but apparently not to Labour Members, that the original scheme was not only ill-conceived, but ill-devised and it operated in a most ineffective manner.

Such failure was inevitable because the scheme, by its very conception, undermined the whole essence of the common agricultural policy. I may agree with many Opposition Members that the very nature of the common agricultural policy is due for fundamental reappraisal—I put it no more strongly than that. However, as long as we have such a policy, based as it is on the principle of minimum intervention prices, any system that sets out to offer something at a different price or seeks to give something away, will start to undermine that policy.

Some people may want the common agricultural policy undermined, but the Minister, our Government and the Commission of the EC would be well advised to think carefully before setting out to undermine the principles of a policy to which they still claim to be committed. That is the first problem.

The next problem is the equally obvious one of the black market possibilities of such a scheme. I believe that it is obvious that when one gives away a desired product that is already on the market and has an established price, that practice is open to the possibility of black market operations. In other words the recipients of the product can decide whether to use it themselves or to offer it in some subsidiary or illegal manner on the market. Again, that further undermines the original market that we are trying to operate.

That problem leads to the next difficulty—sheer and rather unpleasant greed. I do not know about the experience of other hon. Members, but in my constituency the scheme attracted an unpleasant reaction when people got wind of something that could be got for nothing. There was a rather undignified response and in some cases people scrambled to get their hands on what was thought to be desirable. Unpleasant accusations were made by one set of people against another: "Why did they get some and I did not? Why is that charity not giving me something? Why is the person up the road getting it? What is the queue all about?" Any scheme that brings the greedy aspects of human nature to the surface is unfortunate to say the least. There must be much better ways of alleviating human need rather than a selective and ill-organised system that brings out the worst in people instead of the best.

Faced with such problems I was heartened to hear the Minister say, with honesty, that not only did the Government have reservations about the original scheme, but the experience of the previous scheme has left the Government suspicious about what is now to be attempted. Although the charities tried the first time round, they may not be the vehicles with which to attempt a second effort.

In my constituency I have been contacted by at least one charity previously involved that has made it clear that it has no desire to be involved in any subsequent exercise whether it is given money, subsidies, subventions or anything else such as the Opposition have suggested. I do not think that the charities want to touch this new scheme with a barge pole. They were disillusioned by their experience the first time round. They disliked the reaction that they received from the public. They disliked the ill-organised imposition of the scheme on them. I am sure that they would not be happy, and most of them would not be prepared, to contemplate taking part in a subsequent scheme.

Therefore, my right hon. Friend the Minister has my complete support in his scepticism and his grave doubts about whether we should undertake such a scheme again. He will continue to have that support. I hope that the Government will resist the attempts by the Commission to bring forward that ill-founded scheme, certainly on a permanent basis, which undermines our agricultural policy and brings out the worst in people throughout the Community.

10.56 pm
Mr. Geraint Howells (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

I differ in my approach from that of other hon. Members who have spoken. Many people in my constituency and in Wales generally were proud when they were given extra food at the beginning of the new year. That was welcomed by many of the needy and the elderly. However, I should like to express a cautious welcome to the European Community document that we are considering. It is an excellent idea in theory to distribute surplus stocks from intervention stores to those in need in our society. To some extent it eases the embarrassment over the wastage of keeping produce in intervention in the first place.

I have always been against hoarding meat and other surpluses. Will the Minister say which commodities are in surplus? I have been told that there is little best beef in surplus in the Community. There is plenty of cow beef, but I do not believe that many of the elderly will be interested in that. Will any beef be given away this Christmas or at the beginning of the new year? The other commodity in surplus is butter. Will the Minister list the commodities and tell us what percentage of those in surplus will be given to the people?

My reservations about the scheme are based on our experiences during the earlier part of this year when there appeared to be a great deal of public and official confusion about the working of the scheme—dare I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth)? It came about because the distribution was in the hands of charities that had neither adequate resources to cope with the demand nor sufficient warning beforehand to organise the operation properly. I understand that there was a great deal of resentment at the lack of consultation. Whether it was between the charitable organisations and the Department I am not sure, but I have been told that there was a great deal of unease.

The other main problem has been identified as the imprecise definition of those eligible to receive the food and exactly how much food each person was to receive. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that issue, too.

We must welcome the initiative and its development into a permanent system, not linked to a cold weather factor as it was earlier this year. But from now on it is important to ensure that the rules are made crystal clear and that the organisations in charge of distribution are well prepared for the work involved, so that the food reaches the maximum number of those who deserve it.

There must also be adequate funding. Does the Minister consider that £70 million per annum is enough, bearing in mind that expenditure on distribution last time was £110 million for three months? There is a great discrepancy in that. Are the charities involved likely to be given sufficient support this time round, to avoid the tremendous financial and organisational strains that they suffered last time? Age Concern incurred costs of £ 195,000 for its part in the operation, and it has asked for consultation well before the public announcement of any future scheme.

Is there a case for involving local authorities, which probably have better local knowledge and comprehensive lists of those in need? They may also have more resources for distribution. Could there be co-operation between authorities and the charities? In Wales, the distribution could be carried out by county and district councils. Community councils are extremely strong in the Principality, and their members could do excellent work in helping to distribute food to the needy, the young and the elderly. When he announced the scheme, the EC Agriculture Commissioner hinted that the Government had asked him not to involve the local authorities. What was the reason for that? However, I understand that Mr. Andriessen said that local authorities might play a role in the future. I would welcome the Minister's comments on whether there is any truth in what the Commissioner said.

Another essential ingredient of a successful scheme must be the detailed description of the categories of those in need and eligible for free food. Last time varying interpretations in different areas led to confusion and resentment among the elderly and the poor.

We must accept this document with enthusiasm, but from now on the British end of the scheme must be organised as efficiently as seemed to be the case in other countries. The British public cannot put up with the confusion and disappointments that were such a feature of the original scheme.

11.1 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

I need not detain the House for long at this late hour. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Minister's healthy dose of scepticism in these matters. As we are about to enter international negotiations on a concept and on a set of documents that are most kindly described as opaque, it might be helpful if I offered some general considerations to the House.

Such a scheme could not make more than the tiniest dent in the huge mountains of surplus food that have accumulated under the common agricultural policy. My right hon. Friend the Minister has said many times that we need radical changes in the policy, but the scheme would make little difference to it. It must not be prayed in aid as an excuse for not taking action to tackle the surpluses at source. If one wishes to empty the bath, it is a good idea to turn off the tap before taking out the plug, however slightly, as this scheme would do. In conformity with that thought, the scheme should be limited to a modest sum—in Community terms—of 100 million ecu. As it is likely to make only a small impact when one allows for substitution and the rest, the scheme must be confined in cost.

As the documents suggest in outline, it is essential that the member states retain individual control over the designation of authorities for the distribution of food. We do not want to lose that power to a Commission diktat. In that connection—here I may part company from some of my hon. Friends—I favour the retention of the charities as the distribution agencies. In many cases, they are economical. Their overheads are low and their effectiveness high. I understand that the Salvation Army, which bore the brunt of distribution in the United' Kingdom, spent just over £100,000 on the job, which was cost-effective. Secondly, if the matter is remitted to charities, there is no question of any charge of political favouritism or jobbery. Also, it is an advantage if it is at arm's length.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West)

Does my hon. Friend agree that if we gave the job to local authorities we would have to ensure that they did not spend more money distributing the scheme than the scheme would bring into the country? We would have to watch some local authorities particularly carefully. Does he also agree that the suggestion from the Labour Front Bench that we should exclude GRE expenditure could allow councils to go haywire in adding on extra costs?

Mr. Boswell

Perhaps I should say that I think that some local authorities would do better than others. My right hon. Friend referred to the remarkable performance in a short time of the United Kingdom charities in mounting such an effort. If it is to be put on a long-term basis, we will need to consider how we monitor the scheme on a regular basis, not because we do not trust the charities, but because we need to see that there is proper accountability and that a pattern of control is established, particularly within the Community.

One or two points in the documents are disturbing. There is an assertion on page 4 of document No. 9277/87 that it is not possible to give a sound estimate of the total number of beneficiaries". Presumably that means that it would be possible to give only an unsound estimate of the total number of beneficiaries. At page 5 there is reference to very few cases of abuse mentioned in the material that was received from the member states and the charities. My comment on that is: "Well, they would, wouldn't they." If this is to be made permanent, we should accept the scheme, with no illusions as to its tremendous benefit. It may have some marginal benefit, but if it is to do even that without becoming an abuse, it must be properly defined, we must keep some controls within our own purview and not remit the whole job to Europe, and we must ensure that both domestically and in Europe there is better accounting than there has been.

11.8 pm

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I should declare an interest. I have a dual mandate. I am a member of the Common Market Assembly and I receive a third of the parliamentary salary which, after tax, is divided between the Sheffield and Bradford Labour movements. I have made that declaration publicly before.

Charities were not consulted and the Minister is disingenuous if he suggests that it was not open to the Government to recommend in the Council of Ministers that local authorities should be used. Of course, there was a political basis for the decision. An election was in the offing. The Government thought that it might be useful if they were seen to be distributing food and that it might also improve the tarnished image of the Community, which spends 67 per cent. of its expenditure on farming, a large chunk of which goes to building up the food stocks that cost about £2,000 million a year to store.

Since 1984 we have contributed £5.3 billion to the Community in net revenue. The free food distribution gave the false impression that we were getting something back for our money. In fact, we got very little, and in the new scheme we will get even less—£70,000 below the amount spent on the last occasion.

The British Government were rather parsimonious once the PR exercise had been completed. It should be emphasised that the charities, and even the Ministry, did not know what would be the organisational application of the scheme. The Minister rushed off to television studios, but his officials did not have the details of how the scheme would operate to make foodstuffs available to the charities or any other organisations.

The charities are cynical about any new scheme that is to be introduced, because they lost thousands of pounds that they could ill afford to part with in the course of distribution. Age Concern has estimated that the scheme cost it over £195,000, and it was not the largest charity involved. It has made various representations about that loss. If the Government want the charities to be involved, they must be prepared to meet some of the costs arising from the previous scheme. That will have to be done before the charities will show any enthusiasm for the new scheme.

The Government were even churlish in the way in which they approached the old scheme. They refused to distribute the foodstuffs that were involved and available such as flour, sugar, vegetable oils, fruit and vegetables. That reflected mean-mindedness on their part.

The efficiency of the old scheme in reducing the huge mountains of foodstuffs was laughable. About 13,624 tonnes of butter were distributed in the United Kindom, which was a small fraction of the 243,036 tonnes which were in store here when the scheme started. The distribution of beef was an even greater disaster. Only 1,041 tonnes were given away, but there were 48,671 tonnes in store at the end of January. By the end of the scheme, the amount of beef in store had increased. In terms of effectiveness, the scheme was counter-productive. I hope that the new scheme will result in a genuine distribution of significant quantities of food.

I must tell the Minister that my faith in the Commission is extremely limited. I would not allow it to run a fish-and chip shop. I regard fish-and-chip shops as far too important to be subjected to that treatment. Indeed, the Commission is trying to impose a tax on vegetable oils to increase the cost of fish and chips. It is even now engaged in pursuing that absurd task.

I hope that the Minister will use his influence in the Council of Ministers, which in theory is the power organisation in the Common market, and press for a wider application of the scheme. Let him do so with a view to ensuring that the Commission produces a better scheme that will lead to the distribution of significant quantities of food.

When I was temporarily absent from this place, it enacted the Communities (Amendment) Act 1986. Hon. Members can see in document No. 9138/87 that there is now a qualified majority voting procedure. Even if the Government put forward sensible proposals, they can be out-voted. That is a consequence of the foolish legislation that the House enacted that gave more powers to the Common market, which continues to be a millstone round our neck.

The previous distribution of food humiliated many applicants. There were many who were told that they did not qualify, or that their friends did, because of the uncertainty of definition. Of course, those who did not have to go through that procedure thought that everything was all right. It would seem that there is common consent this evening that the scheme was a disaster and that there must be a radical improvement before a new scheme is even vaguely acceptable. I hope that the Minister will take these comments on board——

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The hon. Gentleman has made an outspoken criticism of the arrangements for the distribution of food aid to the poor. Bearing in mind his attacks on the Government and the Common Market—and he knows that I share some of the concern that he has felt for many years—would he tell us how he suggests the European Community should tackle the distribution of surplus food to the poor of the world and how much his proposals would cost?

Mr. Cryer

I would certainly include a much wider range of foods, because they are presumably still available. I would define much more widely and generously those entitled to receive free food and I would ensure that the local authorities were involved because, of all our organisations, they are the best equipped to pick out people in need—[HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] Hon. Members shout "Nonsense," but the local authorities run social services departments. They deal constantly with people in need of housing — people in private accommodation that is not fit to live in and who are forced to seek council housing. Social services departments deal with those in genuine need.

I suspect that the reason why the Government did not call upon the local authorities or press the case for their use in the Council of Ministers is that the distribution of free food might reflect a certain amount of credit on the local authorities. The Government are obsessive in their hatred of local government, as has been demonstrated in virtually all their legislation. I would call upon the expertise and knowledge of local authorities and ask them to help to produce an adequate definition of the groups that should qualify.

Furthermore, local authorities would have the facilities available to enable them to achieve a distribution that was not arbitrary. In the previous scheme, for example, some centres in Sheffield ran out of butter, although there were 30 tonnes stored in the central depot.

I have much greater faith in local authorities than in charities to achieve efficient distribution. Although the charities tried their best, they found the whole exercise very burdensome, and the costs enormous. Consequently, the charities are cynical about future distributions. We probably need both local authorities and the charities, but we certainly need to invoke the local authorities' support in defining those eligible for the food.

That is a thumbnail view of what I would do, and when we have a Labour Government we shall make sure that the thing is done properly.

11.17 pm
Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

I welcome the debate because it gives us an opportunity, at least in principle, to consider ways in which the elderly, less well-off and needy in our society can be helped. Many people are understandably concerned and bemused by a system that allows vast quantities of food to be stored at vast cost when many in our society go without.

I remind Conservative Members who criticise the scheme that it is a valuable aid to the pensioner living on a state pension who has to decide in the middle of a cold snap in winter how best to spend his or her money—on heating, on food or on clothing. Similarly, a single parent has to decide between the competing claims of herself and her children. One could go on to list many more examples of needy people in our society.

Personally, and on behalf of my party, I welcome the provision to allow intervention stocks to be made available to those who desperately need them. I also welcome the fact that such distribution need not be linked to the cold-weather provision, as it was last winter.

I ask the Government to note a few points, already made, in part, by Opposition members, based on the experience of the distributing organisations during the winter of 1986–87. It must be made clear to those who administer the system exactly who is to benefit. It was appalling that in some parts of the country people who turned up with their benefit books were turned away because some members of some distributing organisations interpreted entitlement differently from others. Many people who were already embarrassed at having to make a claim left empty handed, feeling humiliated and degraded.

We must ensure that the distributing organisations have the capacity to do the work properly. I do not criticise the volunteers who worked extremely hard last winter, but I am sure that some did not appreciate the enormity of the task that they had taken on. It is in the nature of people who work for charities, many of whom are volunteers, that they often do what is asked of them. They were asked to distribute the food. They volunteered, not realising in many instances what was really asked of them. We should not take for granted those who work for charitable organisations. What the scheme involves should be made clear to them at the outset.

The Government have shown, through the Minister's remarks, what can only be described as less than enthusiasm for the proposed scheme. I urge the Minister to reconsider, because a great deal can be achieved, provided that the scheme is worked out properly, that we know who is to benefit from it, and that the distributing organisations—I agree that a combination of charities and local authorities would be an excellent concept—are agreed. The Minister should make a positive contribution at the Council of Ministers. We are talking about a scheme which helps the needy. If it is a proper scheme, I am sure that it will benefit everyone in need.

11.22 pm
Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

This has been an interesting debate. The tone was set by the Minister's opening comments. He did not give us a lot to go on, other than a heavy dose of scepticism. I understand the reasons for that, and it is interesting that his scepticism found ready echoes in the speeches of the hon. Members for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) and for Daventry (Mr. Boswell). Our scepticism is reflected in our amendment. I am surprised that the Government, in the shape of the Minister, have not been more conciliatory towards it.

I welcome the comments of the hon. Members for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells) and for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones), both of whom supported the views of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). I welcome particularly the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer)." I assure him that it is in a sense of comradeship that I say his speech was moderate, well thought out and constructive. I look forward to continued contributions by him in that light. [Interruption.] I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has taken those comments to heart.

The Government's proposition represents a fairly important landmark in the development of the European Community. Last year, the arrangement for the distribution of what we call free food was a one-off, justified as a response to help those in need during a period of cold and inclement weather. This year it has been made clear that the scheme is to be permanent. That is a major transition. Last year, through the Government and through charities, the EEC was using its surpluses for a social purpose. This year it is to be written into EEC regulations that common agricultural policy surpluses will be an instrument of social policy rather than a mere by product of a financial mechanism for the control and development of agriculture. That is a significant development.

The irony is that the concession has been drawn from the Government — they are perhaps not kicking and screaming, but we have argued for it on a number of occasions—at a time when the era of surpluses is almost at an end. As a result of catastrophic climatic conditions which even I would not attribute entirely to the Government, wheat will be in short supply for the first time, the dairy industry expects to pay no superlevy for the first time in several years, creamery sales are 39 per cent. down on last year and there are unlikely to be any additional surpluses of butter or cheese. Moreover, beef production is suffering as a result of quota systems and by 1989 we shall be importing beef. It is ironic that now that surpluses are coming to an end the Commission is moving towards using them for this social purpose.

I think that the Minister was teasing the House, as is his nature, when he seemed to imply that the Government might not proceed with a food distribution policy if the Commission decided to authorise such a scheme. In view of the Government's take-note motion and the political realities that they will face, I believe that they will proceed with the policy because the pressure will force them to do so

We recognise the benefits of the scheme, as we did last year, and we unstintingly praise the efforts of the voluntary sector. In the debate last year, the Minister took issue with some Opposition Members, but I assure him that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields and I do not believe that last year's scheme should be subject to heavy criticism, despite the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South.

Our view is clearly shared by the Minister. In April this year, in reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth), the Minister said The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should learn lessons from the scheme. I hope that he would not say that it was a complete loss."—[Official Report, 23 April 1987; Vol 114, c. 783.] That was an honest comment from the Minister. Indeed, he could do little other than take that view, given the publicity that the scheme had received. For example, on 8 February The Sunday Times carried the lurid headline: Great meat handout is pie in the sky". A few weeks later The Guardian reported: DHSS blamed as free food fails to reach needy". That was followed by The Independent on 6 March saying perhaps most disturbingly of all: Scramble for free butter turns violent". Those were the descriptions in the press of last year's scheme, and those were some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South.

Mr. Spearing

If there is to be a scheme of definitions — which, on the face of it, is equitable — will not amounts and quantities also follow? Therefore, the whole logistics, especially when taken in conjunction with a permanent scheme, would take on a different tone. Permanent problems would result from a permanent scheme. Is not that one of the dilemmas?

Mr. Davies

I agree absolutely—and I know that the Minister also agrees. The essence of the debate is that the scheme is to be permanent. It cannot be operated with the assistance of charities, as happened last year, with the Minister saying "So what?" if a few million deliveries of butter go astray or if the charities have to meet a few pounds of extra costs. We are now being asked to institutionalise a system for the dispersal of European surpluses. That new institution requires that we are especially vigilant in our examination of the proposals and that we put these valid points to the Minister.

I wish to put to the Minister a number of specific points on which I hope that he can reassure the House when he replies. Last year, there were criticisms of the quality of food distributed. Certainly in south Wales—and it will not be lost on the Minister that my constituency is Caerphilly—there were a number of complaints about the quality of cheese. It had clearly passed its shelf life and was unfit for human consumption. I understand that that cheese was not out of intervention, but was bought on the market. That is worrying, and I ask the Minister to tell us what steps he will take this year to ensure the quality of food distributed.

I understand that about 50,000 tonnes of beef are in store in this country. I note that the Minister acknowledges that. He will recall that earlier this year the Government agreed to the Commission's proposal to outlaw the production and sale of beef produced using growth hormones. Therefore, that 50,000 tonnes of beef cannot be sold on the open market. It would be quite inappropriate if beef that is not fit for human consumption, not fit to be produced and not fit to be sold on the open market, is now to be given to charities. Do we now have food that is fit for the poor but not fit for the open market? That is an important question, and I hope that the Minister will tell us the Government's attitude.

Much has been said about the costs that the charities had to bear last year. We will not criticise the Minister if he says that, this year, the charities will play some part. I understand the strong feelings expressed by some of my hon. Friends who said that local authorities would have to be involved. The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South were constructive. He said that local authorities would best be able to identify those in need——

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)


Mr. Davies

We would have welcomed the hon. Gentleman's contribution to our debate, but he chose not to make it. However, he has asked a question and I will answer it. Despite the ravages of the Government, local authorities still understand the needs of their local communities. They are still able, through their welfare and social services departments and their contacts with the voluntary agencies, to identify those most in need. However, to some extent I take issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South because I have my doubts about the extent to which they should be involved in the distribution of food. That is a role well fulfilled by the charities, even though the local authorities have a valid role to play.

Mr. Harris


Mr. Davies

No, I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman asked a question and I answered it. He could have made his speech during the debate. On another occasion I will give way to him, but not tonight. I also know that the Minister is anxious to reply to the debate.

I hope that the Minister will give some assurance on the extent to which charities have been involved in the consultations. There were difficulties last year. We will support the Minister if he uses the charities again this year, but as a prerequisite we expect them to be involved in the consultations.

I take issue with the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire. He talked about the subsidy that was given to charities last year. His comment was unfair to the Minister. The Government did not give subsidies to charities. They helped to meet the costs that were quite properly incurred in the distribution of free food to the needy. I understand that they will do so this year. Frankly, to talk about subsidies is not only a gross misrepresentation of the fact, but is a quite deliberate and offensive insult to the recipients of the food and to the thousands of people who were involved in the distribution of it.

I now refer to the way in which the food will be distributed. I understand that it is likely that the food surpluses in this country will involve only beef and butter. They are the commodities that we have in store. Despite some of the claims, particularly those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), we shall not participate in the share-out of the wine lake. This year, the share-out will be restricted to beef and butter. I know that the Minister will assure me that he will examine the matter. Will he assure the House that we will ensure that we get our fair share of the commodities from the European Community? What steps will he take to ensure, as far as possible, an acceptable spread of such commodities throughout the different parts of the country? I am well aware that some counties that were first off the mark last time were those in the south of England—I make no criticism or party political point—and were geared up because of their network of social support. Frankly, they have a network involving the Women's Royal Voluntary Service and the Red Cross. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may mock cynically. It is a fair point. Many deprived communities in the country, where free food needs to be distributed most urgently, do not possess that social network. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that, as far as possible, that distribution applies equally?

Will the Minister state his attitude to individual requirements and the criteria that voluntary organisations and charities will adopt in the distribution of products? For example, it will be quite wrong if the WRVS, in establishing its criteria, determines that one individual is entitled to receive free beef, and the Red Cross or the Royal British Legion, in adopting their criteria, say that that individual is not entitled to it. I do not ask the Minister to lay down guidelines or to dictate. I ask him to state whether he will advise charities that certain broad criteria should be met. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire's comments are fatuous. He made a speech. Frankly, he did not have the guts to attack his Minister. On this occasion, he did not have the wisdom to support his Minister. In future, if he has comments to make, perhaps he will make them openly and honestly in debate, rather than snipe from a sedentary position. His remarks certainly carry no weight with me. He will find that the Minister is equally dismissive of his comments.

Mr. Forth

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies

I have no intention of giving way when I have responded to an intervention which the hon. Gentleman made from a sedentary position. He had an opportunity to make a speech. He has been sniping at my comments. I suspect that he has been elsewhere this evening and has not followed the debate as carefully as he should have. He left the Chamber for a large part of the debate. On those grounds, I shall not give way. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have future opportunities to make his case.

I ask the Minister to give an assurance that the guidelines that I seek will be available to the charities involved.

We have tabled an amendment setting out our position. Given the response of hon. Members to the Minister's opening statement, we are entitled to give the proposals a cautious welcome. The Minister is surrounded by sceptics on his own side. Our view is best expressed by saying that we wish to see the system changed so that surpluses are not produced, but, if there are surpluses, this is the best way of dealing with them. We hope that the new scheme will be an improvement on last year's scheme, and in that expectation, we shall not divide the House.

11.39 pm
Mr. Gummer

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thank hon. Members for this evening's helpful debate. Again, I apologise to the Scrutiny Committee for the fact that the debate had to take place in these circumstances, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) will agree that it has been worth having it in advance, rather than in retrospect.

I agree with the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) that there is no such thing as a free lunch, or free food, in the European Community. His comments lead me to remind him that, because, in his terms, we have paid four times over, we should be hesitant about paying for it yet again. One of the difficulties is that if it were shown that the handing out of so-called free food meant that people did not buy food that they would otherwise have bought, and that that food then went into intervention, the British taxpayer would have paid for it yet again. That does not seem to help anybody. We must face this problem, and say that with great care because if we could find a way that avoided it we should take it. That is why I am being sceptical, but not dismissive. I am always hoping that some answer to this central problem can be found, but so far I have not found it.

I shall not follow the hon. Gentleman's general condemnation of the Government. However, when he talks about disadvantage, I remind him that, on average, pensioners' incomes since 1979 have grown twice as fast as those of the population as a whole. I could give a whole series of arguments to answer the points that the hon. Gentleman has put forward, but I must say that one part of his speech was party political rather than helpful.

The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to describe the efforts of the charities as commendable. We are at one on that. However, I hope that he will agree that the efforts of the many civil servants who were involved in making the scheme work as well as it could in the circumstances were also commendable. His hon. Friends have pointed out that there was a feeling of a lack of consultation. However, consultation with the charities took place the day after we were first consulted. We were bounced into the scheme and brought the charities together at 4 o'clock the following afternoon, which was as fast as we could. I apologise, but I do not see how we could have done that any quicker. I hope that our bona fides are supported by the fact that I brought the charities together immediately we knew that there was any possibility of a new scheme. They kindly came in and we discussed the matter.

Opposition Members have asked about the response of the charities. Again, I do not want to avoid the Government's responsibility for making up their mind on these matters. There should be no suggestion that I asked the charities for their opinion, acted on it and then blamed them for it. This is a genuine answer because, as far as I can see, the charities would be extremely reluctant to continue a scheme of the type proposed by the Commission. They feel that it lacks a whole range of extremely important and necessary features. Above all, they feel that it diverts their activities from the things that they should be doing. I do not wish to tie them to that, but at the moment that is their view.

Dr. David Clark

I am grateful for the Minister's response, but will he inform the House whether the charities would feel the same if their distribution and administration costs were met? As I understand it, that was one of the prime reasons why some of the charities felt that they could not go ahead with the scheme.

Mr. Gummer

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will accept that I try hard to understand what the charities feel about this. I do not think that that is the central issue. Without putting words into their mouths, I think they feel that they are set up for particular purposes. They seek to carry out those activities as well as they can and feel that a permanent scheme of this type would distort the activities in which they are engaged. They may well be prepared to take advantage of the availability of food in certain circumstances, and they would take that into account if they took on extra work or sought to work differently. I understand their feeling that they have a particular role and that, whereas it was possible to respond to the invitation in a one-off emergency, to be institutionalised into a permanent system poses a whole range of new difficulties.

The question then is whether this would be a role for local authorities. Whatever Opposition Members may feel generally towards Conservative Members, they will find it difficult to suggest that I have ever taken an antagonistic view towards local authorities. I am lucky in having two extremely good ones in my area. If they wished to participate I am sure that they would be most helpful in a distribution scheme of this type, but I ask myself whether it would be helpful for them to do so and whether it would not divert them from the job that they do.

I note that the hon. Member for Caerphilly said that he was opposed to local authorities distributing food, and wanted their advice. I can see that argument. The House must bear in mind that the scheme might divert people doing useful work into doing something less useful. We must consider that. I am sorry that this sounds so critical, but we have experience of people undertaking the work with the best will in the world who still feel that this is not what they should be doing. I think that many local authorities would feel the same.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) said that when the charities undertook the work there was a difference in application from one area to another. If some local authorities feel that it is suitable and some do not, if some distribute and some do not, and if some merely give advice and some distribute and give advice, we shall have exactly the same problems unless we force them to do something, but that would mean forcing them to take part in a scheme about which we feel unhappy. Surely there can be no question of giving a special advantage to those who choose to do this in order to avoid any penalties under the rules and not to those who choose to do what local authorities would normally consider more important. That distortion would be extremely difficult to promote.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

My right hon. Friend is advancing a most constructive argument. Does he accept that local authorities, dealing with both services and housing, so being able to respond to the social service needs of many people, could supply to voluntary organisations the names of those— they are many—who could benefit from the free supply of surplus foods from the EC under this sort of scheme? Does he agree that they could co-operate more positively and constructively with the voluntary organisations, which did a superb job under the scheme that was operated a year ago?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend is right, but many local authorities did precisely that on that occasion. I am merely suggesting that voluntary bodies may feel that this would be a diversion from their normal activities.

The hon. Member for South Shields talked about involving food retailers. One of the problems that we face is that if there is a permanent scheme and an extensive amount of substitution, the small shopkeepers will be affected and they, after all, are used by the older members of the population. They play an important role in all our constituencies—town and country. There is no doubt that on the last occasion a large proportion of the products that were handed out resulted in people not buying what they would otherwise have bought. It is difficult enough to explain that to the small shopkeeper with narrow profit margins, but then to ask him to join in as a means of distributing the food would require a good deal of public relations over a long period. I wonder whether that would be the right direction in which to go.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) that I, like him, am concerned about the misuse of these products. The difficulty is that if there is a permanent scheme, there is more time in which people can work out ways of misusing it. One of the reasons why there was so little fraud relatively — speaking— during the emergency scheme was that there was so little time in which to organise ways of getting round it. I am much more worried about a permanent scheme in which the wide boys will find all sorts of ways in which to operate. That would make the situation even worse. It would be almost one of 100 per cent. substitution, and then we would, indeed, be paying five times over instead of the four times that the hon. Member for South Shields mentioned. That, too, worries me.

As for the issue of greed, I do not believe that the scheme creates greed. In some cases it merely brings it out. I am not sure that that would be a key issue in my mind if I were deciding about the scheme, although I might have a theological discussion with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire about that at some time.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells) said that the scheme would ease embarrassment. I can see the hon. Gentleman's position. If I felt, in all honesty, that a scheme could be devised whereby, in addition to food already sent, food that would otherwise remain in intervention could be distributed, I agree that that would ease embarrassment and do positive good. The problem is that the present scheme does not do that. Unless we can find a way of doing it, it will make the embarrassment worse.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South is right. He said that if we were not careful there would be more in store when we had finished than at the beginning. He also said that that had happened last time. If so, the reason was partly that more was coming in than was going out, and partly that a large amount of the beef was substituted for beef that would otherwise have been sold. That is difficult to defend and makes for greater, rather than less, embarrassment.

The hon. Gentleman also said that there was a lack of consultation, and there was. I consider that it was not the Government's fault, and I believe that the charities would agree with that. I tried to avoid a lack of consultation by bringing in the charities even before we had had any official notice. I think that the hon. Member for South Shields would agree with that. The minute that there were rumours we discussed with the charities the basis for such a scheme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) made some important points. The scheme was an expensive one for many of the charities, but I remind the House that some charities managed to do their job at a lower cost than others. One of the problems is assessing the real cost. I do not pretend that there is an easy way of doing that. It is another of the many difficult areas. My hon. Friend was right to say that we must confine the costs, designate the authorities and be concerned with accountability. All that makes the scheme even more difficult for charities to be involved, because the more carefully one avoids fraud, and the more one tries to make the scheme operate successfully, the more problems one will lay on the shoulders of the charities. Once there is a permanent scheme, the Public Accounts Committee will seek to ensure that it is properly operated. That will mean the charities doing things for which they are ill-equipped. As the Opposition has suggested that this is not a suitable area in which the local authorities should become wholly involved, it is a difficult problem to overcome.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South was a little unfair. First, he said that the House was in some way remiss in passing the Single European Act. The Single European Act made no difference at all, because this would still have been a majority decision whether or not we had had the Act. Perhaps during his absence from the House he misremembered that. I am entirely in favour of the Single European Act. One of the great views of his party ought to be the growing together of countries so that they are able to make joint decisions. I find it difficult to understand why he believes so much in democracy in this country, but does not believe in it when it comes to nations working together. His views are extremely old-fashioned and very much out of line with those of most of his Socialist colleagues. The Single European Act does not affect the case. The decision would in any case have been made by majority vote.

It is odd for the hon. Member for Bradford, South to suggest that we should have distributed flour. We would have had to import the bread-making wheat from the rest of the Community, turn it into flour, and distribute it through charities that did not want to distribute it. That is a good reason for not doing it. It is not a question of meanness on the part of the Government, but one of trying to make the thing at least a little more sensible than when the Commission gave it to us.

We would have had to import sugar from Italy to give it away in Britain. I cannot think of a more barmy concept than that. If anything is substitution, it would be to follow the line suggested by the hon. Member for Bradford, South and import sugar from Italy in order to substitute it for sugar sent here by the Third world.

Mr. Cryer

Little Englander.

Mr. Gummer

I am prepared to be narrow on behalf of the poor, arid prepared to be tough when it comes to defending the interests of some of the poorest nations on earth. I will take no seated attacks from the hon. Member for Bradford, South on that issue, because I have a record on that issue that bears examination. Perhaps he would like to refer to it. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has been found wanting and might, therefore, be found more silent.

The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) rightly raised the question of the cold snap and the difficulty with the weather. The problem that he has to face on this issue is that it is not an emergency scheme connected with specific difficulties. It is a permanent scheme and, because of the usual distribution of food, the problem arises of increasing the amount going into intervention because of the substitution. There is also the problem of deciding whether this is a proper use of resources. I cannot easily be convinced that money spent in this way is money best spent. We must ask if this is the way to help the poor, or whether we ought to look for other ways of spending the money, if we have the money to spend. Given its budgetary problems, the Community ought to ask itself whether it has much money to spend.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly said it was an instrument of social policy. I doubt whether it is a very useful instrument of social policy, and I do not know of any area where is has been successful. He said the era of surpluses is at an end. If they are, it is because of policies that the Government have carried through in Europe. I do not think that the surpluses are at an end. There is still a long way to go. I might tease the hon. Member for Caerphilly, but I never tease the House. I am worried about this issue. We should learn lessons from this scheme. So far the lesson that I have learnt is that it must be very different from the last scheme before it can be of any use at all. The hon. Gentleman will remember that no Caerphilly cheese is made in Caerphilly, unless some has suddenly been made.

Mr. Ron Davies

Some is made there.

Mr. Gummer

I am glad that some is now made there, but the cheese that was distributed under the scheme was bought off the market, and I find it difficult to believe that it was different from any other cheese sold on the market.

I must protest about the hon. Gentleman's comments on hormones. He has been eating beef with hormones in it all his life, because any self-respecting animal is filled with hormones. That is what makes the poor old thing wander about, and if it does not have hormones it does not wander. The hon. Gentleman wanders more effectively because of the hormones that are coursing round his body. The minuscule additional number of hormones that one gets from hormone beef make no difference at all. It is only the lunacy of the Common Market that suggests that we should get rid of hormone beef.

It being One and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 ( Exempted Business), to put the Questions necessary to dispose of the proceedings.

Amendment negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 9138/87 on general rules for the supply of food from intervention stocks for distribution to the most deprived persons in the Community.

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