HC Deb 19 January 1989 vol 145 cc475-6
8. Mr. Rogers

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is his estimate of the current size of the breeding ewe flock in England and Wales.

Mr. Donald Thompson

The most recent figure for the number of breeding ewes in England and Wales comes from the June 1988 census. It is 13.407 million ewes.

Mr. Rogers

In the current review of the sheepmeat regime by the Council of Ministers, will Her Majesty's Government resist the abolition of the variable premium? If they fail, as is likely, will they insist on an alternative support system that will safeguard the livelihoods of upland sheep farmers?

Mr. Thompson

There are, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, complex negotiations ahead. My right hon. Friend will be doing his best to ensure that any future regime enables the industry, including that of Northern Ireland, to prosper and gain full advantage from an excellent structure and its efficiency and expertise.

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). His earlier question was broader than the specific answer that I was giving. The answer to his question is that we shall also be discussing these matters in the EEC next week.

Mr. Michael Brown

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a good opportunity for the rest of Europe to appreciate the size of our ewe and lamb flock and that there are great opportunities for exporting our lamb? May we have an assurance that our industry is exploiting to the full the opportunities for lamb and mutton?

Mr. Thompson

Our sheep and lamb exports are one of the success stories of British farming in the 1980s. Exports have increased by 77 per cent. since 1980 and Welsh lamb has rightfully taken its place as one of the delicacies of continental Europe, especially in Greece.

Dr. Thomas

Proportionately, I probably represent more sheep than any other hon. Member—[Interruption.] This is a serious matter. Will the Minister give an assurance to the sheep farmers of the hill areas throughout the United Kingdom that he understands that to them, sheepmeat and the income derived from the EEC sheepmeat regime is a regional policy which must be maintained? What is the present negotiating position of his right hon. Friend on this issue in the Community?

Mr. Thompson

It would be churlish of me to comment on the opening words used by the hon. Gentleman in that supplementary question by saying that that is why he is here. My right hon. Friend is aware of the importance of this industry in Wales and in the uplands of Britain. The hon. Gentleman was not in his place last night for the debate on the beef industry, when much was said about the need to be careful in our negotiations so as to maintain the efficiency and natural advantages that this country has in the sheep and beef industries.

Mr. Geraint Howells

Will the Minister explain why the Government will not pay hill sheep subsidy in full, as they are entitled to do under the EEC rules?

Mr. Thompson

We examine the situation each year. Again, that will be part and parcel of the complex negotiations into which we shall be entering next week.

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