HC Deb 19 January 1989 vol 145 cc473-5
7. Mr. Boswell

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the outcome to date of the short-term action to stabilise the egg market announced by him on 19 December.

10. Mr. Cummings

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement about the take-up of the payment to egg packers for the destruction of surplus eggs announced on 19 December 1988.

Mr. MacGregor

I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the schemes that I announced on 19 December, together with the Government's advertisements, have made an important contribution to restoring stability and confidence in the egg market, and have achieved their objectives with much lower costs to the taxpayer than the maximum sum for which provision was originally made. Final figures are not yet available, but I hope that the total number of cases of eggs involved will not exceed 300,000—which is 108 million eggs—and probably fewer than 450,000 hens will be culled under the scheme.

Mr. Boswell

Is not my right hon. Friend to be congratulated, rather than pilloried, on introducing a scheme at very short notice which—at a lower cost to the taxpayer than anticipated, because of the modest take-up—has nevertheless stabilised a catastrophic market to the benefit of both producers and consumers?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I think that some of the comments have missed two points. First, to restore some confidence to the market, it was necessary to be clear that we would be prepared to take what was then estimated to be the total surplus of eggs on the market. It was necessary to devise a bold scheme to give back confidence. Secondly, a crucial element was the prices offered for both eggs and hens. In the case of eggs it was necessary to put a floor in the market, covering only the cost of feedstuffs to producers.

The moment the market picked up, the schemes would no longer be necessary. They were designed to he cost-effective and yet to achieve the objective of bringing back some stability to a market that was in chaos. I believe that that action had a great deal to do with restoring confidence, and that if it had not been taken many small producers would have run into serious difficulties through no fault of their own. Some would undoubtedly have gone bankrupt.

Mr. Cummings

What plans does the Minister have to reduce our dependency on the battery system and to encourage the keeping of smaller flocks of free-range hens in a programme of mixed farming?

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman's question relates to salmonella. There is no evidence that there is any difference in the incidence of salmonella in free-range systems compared with battery systems. Therefore, it is misleading to suggest that one should opt for one particular system, believing that that would have an impact on salmonella. There is no doubt that the battery hen system, for which we have strong welfare codes, has made a major contribution to the consumer in terms of the safety and hygiene of eggs and providing sufficient eggs at a cheap price.

Mr. Churchill

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure the proper quality of the food that is fed to chickens to minimise the possibility of infection? Secondly, what is his Department's advice about the desirability or otherwise of keeping eggs refrigerated until they are sold?

Mr. MacGregor

On the second point, the Chief Medical Officer, the Department of Health and my Department have been giving advice on the matter for some time. We did a test market last autumn and we have been planning a major education campaign on food hygiene in the kitchen and in catering establishments. We shall be carrying it through very shortly and it will help to reinforce all the efforts that we have made. On the first point in relation to feeding stuffs, my hon. Friend will know that I, my officials and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary have been preparing and adopting a whole series of measures since we received the first information about this new strain of salmonella and its effect in the summer. Some 15 measures have now been announced or are already in operation. Some of those measures relate to my hon. Friend's question about feeding stuffs. However, I have to add that no matter how high the standards of the feeding stuffs coming out of the plant, there is still the risk of that strain of salmonella getting into the feeding stuffs through the environment, so that problem must also be tackled.

Dr. David Clark

The Minister quite rightly prides himself on his announcement to the House on 19 December, but why since then has he continued to announce major policy changes by his ministry through selected newspapers? Is he afraid to announce his proposals to the House because he knows that under scrutiny his proposals will be found wanting? If that is not the case, will he come to the House later today and make those announcements?

Mr. MacGregor

Several of the announcements which have been repeated in newspapers were made in the House throughout December. There was great public interest in this matter so it was right constantly to explain what we were planning to do. I did not make any new announcements yesterday. It is interesting that information on all the measures that I announced in response to a parliamentary question yesterday was given to the House in a joint memorandum by my Department and the Department of Health to the Select Committee on Agriculture when it started its proceedings. I thought that it was right to answer the question again yesterday, so I gave the same information to the House, although the wording was slightly different. I am endeavouring to give the House all the information as soon as the decisions have been taken.

Mr. John Townend

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when faced with a financial hurricane, a wise man battens down the hatches immediately? Is it fair that he should then be penalised by the Government? An egg producer in my constituency slaughtered 35,000 chickens a few days before the announcement of the compensation scheme, so he will receive nothing. Will my right hon. Friend consider backdating the scheme to the day when the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) made her original speech?

Mr. MacGregor

No, I do not think it would be right to backdate this scheme. I made that clear on 19 December, and I will give just two reasons why. First, it would be difficult to get all the evidence. Secondly, a lot of the culling that was taking place was of older hens, and some of that happens all the time. I would not think it right to use taxpayers' money for that purpose because the scheme that I introduced on the hen side was designed to deal with the young laying hens which could have had an impact on the surpluses in the months ahead. So I could not backdate the scheme in the way that my hon. Friend suggests.

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