HC Deb 07 July 1988 vol 136 cc1180-1
7. Mr. Robert G. Hughes: T

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met the chairman of the Milk Marketing Board; and what was discussed.

Mr. MacGregor

I met the chairman of the Milk Marketing Board on 9 June, when we discussed various issues affecting the dairy industry.

Mr. Hughes

When my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman of the Milk Marketing Board, will he stress the importance of giving all possible help and encouragement to our quality milk producers in seeking to find export markets for their goods? Does he agree that the liberalisation of the European milk regime is liable to widen those markets and that milk producers should take all the opportunities presented to them?

Mr. MacGregor

In the last financial year the Milk Marketing Board spent nearly £24 million in support of market development, and that effort must be encouraged. I agree with the implication of my hon. Friend's remarks that sometimes we in Britain have concentrated too much in a rather defensive way on the dangers of imports of milk products and not sufficiently on the prospects for exports of our dairy products. I hope that as we move towards the single market we shall increasingly take opportunities to exploit those markets.

Mr. Martlew

At a recent meeting with the head of the Milk Marketing Board we were told that there was no longer a milk surplus in the United Kingdom and there is a shortage of milk in Scotland. Is it not a fact that the surpluses in Europe are being created by EEC countries that have not met the quota? What will the Minister do to protect British farmers?

Mr. MacGregor

That is not the case. There is still overall a milk surplus within the Community. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I encourage the two Milk Marketing Boards to sort out problems that arise as a result of seasonal troughs and certain shortages, for example, milk for cheese production—a problem which arose particularly in Scotland. I am glad to say that as a result of the talks some arrangements have now been made to transfer milk from England to Scotland.

Mr. Curry

When my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman of the Milk Marketing Board, will he discuss with him the remarkable turnaround in the European dairy industry? Will he note that there is now virtually no skimmed milk powder to be had, that the butter mountain has been more than halved and that the incorporation premium has been reduced? If he studies the Milk Marketing Board's annual report, he will also note that since it ceased to put large amounts of butter into cold store its financial situation has improved because it is not tying up its money so much.

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend is right. There has been a considerable change as a result of the decisions taken by the Council of Ministers on the dairy sector, in particular the introduction of quotas and the tightening of quotas in 1986, so that we are achieving a better balance between supply and demand. My hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to the considerable reductions in the amount of butter in intervention and to the fact that the amount of skimmed milk powder in intervention has come down to practically nil. On the other hand, we still have sizeable subsidy support programmes to dispose of some of the surpluses, including skimmed milk powder. We are still paying a good deal of money to encourage its disposal. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend is correct to say that substantial progress has been made.

Mr. Ron Davies

Will the Minister also discuss bovine somatotropin with the board, and in particular, the view of a group of scientists employed by the Monsanto chemical company who think that if BST is licensed it should be made available on prescription only? Is that not a reasonable policy to follow?

Mr. MacGregor

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have permitted under the Medicines Act 1971 the BST trials that are taking place because we were satisfied, from all the advice and evidence that we were given, that within the terms and criteria set by that Act it was right to do so. We have not yet received advice on the application for licences, and we shall have to take various matters into account when making those decisions.

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