HC Deb 19 November 1987 vol 122 cc1190-1
7. Mr. Skinner

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what recent meetings he has had with other EEC Agriculture Ministers regarding the common agricultural policy; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. MacGregor

The Agriculture Council met on Monday of this week with the objective of completing discussions on proposals on agricultural stabilisers in preparation for the European Council. It adjourned yesterday and reconvenes next Monday morning, 23 November. Some progress was made, but I greatly regret that it has not been possible to meet again earlier than Monday as it is now urgent that decisions are taken to ensure greater budgetary discipline in the CAP.

Mr. Skinner

Is it not a fact that, under this Government, agriculture is the most highly subsidised industry in Britain, costing every family of four approximately £11.50 per week? If the Common Market were a coal mine, the Prime Minister would close it. Is the Minister aware that £20 million of the massive subsidy is due to swindling, and that not one bureaucrat, unlike councillors, has been surcharged? Instead of whingeing about stabilisers, waving goodbye to the Germans, and the rest, why do the Government not do the decent thing and get out of this unmitigated disaster?

Mr. MacGregor

As usual, the hon. Gentleman just does not understand. The whole point about the discussion on agricultural stabilisers is to get greater budgetary discipline into the CAP. We are as concerned as anyone about the level of subsidy that is going into the disposal and storage of stocks that cannot be got rid of, except at subsidised prices. The Government are playing a full part in that. However, it is also a fact that the British agriculture industry is one of the most competitive and efficient in Europe and is one of the most competitive in the United Kingdom. It responds well to technological innovation, and it has enabled us to produce 80 per cent. of all the food that we can grow here, compared to a much lower level before. It is also a fact that agricultural incomes have been under pressure and that food prices have been rising less than the RPI.

Mr. Ralph Howell

May I ask my right hon. Friend totally to ignore any advice that he receives from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and to accept that the common agricultural policy has been a great success? Does he agree that food is cheap in the EEC and that in Britain we are spending 25 per cent. less of our disposable income than we were nine years ago? Does he realise that milk is cheaper than the water that can be bought in bottles?

Mr. MacGregor

I can assure my hon. Friend that I have yet to hear any advice from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that I have found at all helpful. Obviously, I agree with my hon. Friend's complimentary remarks about British agriculture and its contribution to our nation. On the other hand, I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the present level of subsidies for unwanted surpluses is unsustainable and must be tackled.

Mr. Heffer

Is it not ridiculous that there is food in Common Market food storage depots in Liverpool when people in the Third world are suffering and starving and people in Liverpool are struggling to make ends meet? Is it not time that the Government stopped messing about with the agricultural policy and fought to change it entirely, or got out of the Common Market?

Mr. MacGregor

Getting out of the Common Market would do no one any good. The hon. Gentleman cannot have heard the exchanges earlier during Question Time, when the issue of food aid was addressed. I shall not repeat all that. However, he must realise that one purpose of the discussions on stabilisers is to reduce the amount of stocks in intervention. It is a fact that, as a result of the recent decisions that were taken by the Council, the United Kingdom's butter stocks are down by 20 per cent. compared with a year ago, wheat and barley stocks are down by over 50 per cent. and skimmed milk powder stocks are down by 85 per cent. Therefore, we are succeeding in reducing those stocks in intervention.

Mr. Marland

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that output from British farms is falling and that the real problem lies with the surpluses and in the cost of storing the surpluses that are currently in store, many of which are, sadly, unusable? Will he further confirm that he will not introduce quotas on any other agricultural produce, other than those that are currently in position?

Mr. MacGregor

I agree entirely with the earlier part of my hon. Friend's question. I assure him that we are reducing stocks such as the amount of feed wheat that is in store, and finding markets for it. On his point about quotas, no proposals for quotas on any other commodities are before the Council at the moment.

Dr. David Clark

May I assure the Minister that he has the support of Opposition Members in any genuine attempts at a major reform of the CAP that would reduce wasteful expenditure and lead to a reduction in unnecessary and unwanted surpluses? Will he assure the House that the stabilisers that he speaks about are truly effective, not only in reducing surpluses, but in cutting out unwanted production? Finally, will he give the House a categorical assurance that he will not in any way support an oil and fat tax, which would increase the price of margarine in this country by up to 60 per cent.?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his first point. Regarding his second point, what we are striving to do in the current discussions is to get stabilisers that are truly effective in the direction that the hon. Gentleman is seeking. That is important for our farmers, and in other ways. I regret that we have not made enough progress on that this week, and I am determined to try to ensure that we make more progress when we resume on Monday.

The hon. Gentleman's third point concerned the oils and fats tax. We have been strongly critical of that tax throughout — the hon. Gentleman gave one of the reasons for that — and we are maintaining our opposition to it.

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