HC Deb 21 March 1991 vol 188 cc390-1
6. Mr. Maclennan

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what recent discussions he has had with British farmers about the future of the sheep industry; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Curry

My colleagues and I have regular discussions with sheep farmers and their representatives.

Mr. Maclennan

How does the Minister propose to arrest the depressing erosion of incomes of hill and upland farms which are dependent upon the sheep industry? Will he do three things? Will he announce his proposals to end the sheepmeat variable premium? Will he support a private storage scheme to ease the undoubted danger of fluctuations occuring in the market following the ending of the variable premium scheme? May we have a five-year continuance of the wool guarantee, as wool constitutes some 14 per cent. of the incomes of sheep farmers in the hills and uplands?

Mr. Curry

We retain the option to accelerate the phase-out of the variable premium. When we take that decision, we shall certainly bear in mind the importance of accelerating our exports and getting rid of the clawback.

Giving a five-year guarantee is not a practical proposition. We recently increased the hill livestock compensatory allowances. About £400 million per year goes into the British sheep industry as a whole, a large proportion of it to the less-favoured areas. We recently increased HLCAs by £142 million. We have a system of market support in the livestock sector which costs us £800 million per year. That is a great deal of taxpayers' money to support the industry. We are committed to that industry.

Mr. Barry Field

Does my hon. Friend accept. that farmers are worried about the difference between the price that they get at market for their sheep for slaughter and the price that the housewife has to pay? Does he accept that, because of the demise of high street butcheries, farmers cannot easily sell their products to supermarkets, which refuse to take their produce locally? Will my hon. Friend's Department investigate that aspect of the red meat trade?

Mr. Curry

I have always found that when the farmers have some complaint about the retail sector, it is best to get the Women's Farming Union on to the matter. It appears to be the last paramilitary body in Britain and is extremely effective. I would hesitate to tell shops where to do their purchasing.

Mr. Pike

The Minister will know that sheep farmers are very unhappy about the severe financial difficulties in which they find themselves at present and are concerned about the Government's policy towards their industry. Will he assure them that there will be no repetition of the French lamb wars which, understandably, caused a major public outcry in Britain last year?

Mr. Curry

I hope that I have a certain amount of authority at the Ministry, but I am not sure that my writ extends to the behaviour of French farmers. I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that I attended a Paris show recently especially to advertise the qualities of British lamb on our stand there. We shall do our best to put our producers in touch with French buyers when we can supply what they want and we shall continue insistently to make it known to the French Government that we expect free trade for our product. Despite all the problems, we exported more live lambs to France last year than the year before.