HC Deb 28 January 1993 vol 217 cc1140-1
6. Mr. David Martin

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on initiatives to stimulate food exports.

10. Mr. Streeter

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what action his Department is taking to reduce the balance of trade deficit in food and drink.

Mr. Gummer

I have introduced the group marketing grant and announced an independent review into how best Food From Britain can serve industry's future needs. We are holding seminars with about 150 companies to encourage exports. The Prime Minister's two industry seminars have resulted in important initiatives. David Naish—in a personal capacity—is co-ordinating the follow-up action to these.

Mr. Martin

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Having a commercial port in Portsmouth, we understand the importance of exports to our economy. Will my right hon. Friend continue to do all that he can to encourage food manufacturers and producers in the competitive markets which now exist overseas?

Mr. Gummer

We are doing exactly that, and I am happy to say that exports are rising faster than imports. That is a good start, but there is a long way to go and we need to work at every possible outlet.

Mr. Streeter

While recognising the important contribution made by Scotch whisky to our balance of trade figures, does my right hon. Friend agree that the punitive levels of duty on United Kingdom wine and whisky make those home-produced goods far more expensive in Britain than imported goods? Is that not why many people buy French, Spanish and Italian wine and whisky from abroad? Is it not time to review those levels of duty, end that discrimination against home producers and put British interests first?

Mr. Gummer

That matter is for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who must weigh a number of factors together. There is no doubt that in the single market the pressures on various excise duties become very noticeable.

Mr. Salmond

Is the Minister aware of the lively debate about the possible impact of his proposed abolition of the potato marketing scheme on the level of potato exports? Will he confirm that he intends to abolish the scheme because he wants to do so, or does he claim that he has no alternative because of the incoming EC regime? Does the Minister know that many people are praying for a change of heart on his part?

Mr. Gummer

I say to the hon. Gentleman absolutely frankly that there is a real problem with the situation of the present potato marketing board. We are currently restricting the volume of potatoes that we grow in this country, and there is increasing importation of frozen chips and the like. The growing market sector is processed potato. If we do not take the matter seriously now, our industry will find processors moving abroad and obtaining their potatoes abroad. Anyone who ignores that is ignoring the economic facts and ought to be ashamed of himself.

Mr. Morley

I assure the Minister that we support a strong export trade in food products. However, when it comes to meat exports we would rather see adequate local slaughter facilities and exports of meat rather than of live animals. Is the Minister aware of the concern felt about his resumption of live animal exports to Spain, and about the impact of the single market on live animal exports? Will the Minister join me in condemning the fact that cattle were left for more than 20 hours in a lorry at Fishguard recently because there was no room at the lairage there? Does he agree that the best way to eliminate such problems is to press for an eight-hour limit on animal transport and for tighter regulations?

Mr. Gummer

I am totally committed to better, Europewide regulations on animal transport. The hon. Gentleman knows that I have been fighting for that. I have insisted on retaining national measures in those areas not covered by the Community, even after the opening of the single market. The hon. Gentleman knows that I always condemn any ill treatment of animals, and I support him in that. However, we must have a Europewide arrangement. Otherwise, I will have no powers, for example, to stop the export of live animals to Spanish slaughterhouses that receive Community approval. I could not legally do that. We need a Europewide regulation.

Mr. Bill Walker

Is my right hon. Friend aware that of the 46 per cent. of Scotland's potato crop that is grown in my constituency, much of it is exported? Is he aware that farmers in my constituency are saying that if we scrap the potato marketing board under the present scheme the probability is that, because of the risks involved, farmers will be forced into cereals? Does my right hon. Friend consider that a stimulant or an alternative to exports?

Mr. Gummer

Is it not fundamentally unlikely that whereas every other country has a healthy potato producing industry, ours is the only one that could protect its potato industry only by insisting that we impose restrictions that no other country has? Would my hon. Friend allow me to announce to the House that the Community had decided to allow everyone in Europe to produce as many potatoes as they liked, but that Britain would be restricted to a quota? My goodness!—my hon. Friend would stop talking about Maastricht and give me hell on that.

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