HC Deb 05 May 1994 vol 242 cc826-8
3. Mr. Jim Marshall

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if she will make a statement on the talks between her Department and the milk marketing board on the question of vesting day.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard

The milk marketing board has proposed a vesting day of 1 November 1994 in its reorganisation scheme.

Mr. Marshall

I am a little concerned about the reply that the Minister has just given. She has not yet stated that 1 November is a definite date. In that context, may I remind her that lethargy on the part of her Ministry has delayed vesting day by some six months and that the delay is likely to cost the dairy industry some £60 million or more? If there is a delay beyond 1 November, will she underwrite any further losses that the dairy industry is likely to suffer as a consequence?

Mrs. Shephard

I see no reason at present for speculation that the 1 November vesting day will have to be postponed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I have just been out to consultation on the board's amended scheme. Obviously, we are considering carefully all the comments that we have received before we decide whether to approve the scheme under the terms of the Agriculture Act 1993. We will make our decision as quickly as we can, within our responsibilities as outlined in the Act. The hon. Gentleman should understand—no doubt he does—that it is vital that the scheme should be right, given the importance and in some cases the vulnerability of the 29,000 milk producers in Britain and the 50 million consumers.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

First, I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting my constituency of Macclesfield last Friday. During that visit, she met a large number of representatives of the National Farmers Union, many of whom are among the 29,000 milk producers whom she has just mentioned. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is immense support among my farmers for Milk Marque and the wonderful job that the milk marketing board has done? Is she aware that they want to be reassured that in any future system those farmers who produce milk on hill or marginal land will still be able to have their milk collected daily so that farms continue to be viable in those critical areas?

Mrs. Shephard

I greatly enjoyed my visit to Macclesfield and found my conversations with my hon. Friend's farmers of great value. I am aware of the concern among those producers, some of whom are, indeed, very vulnerable and dependent on the arrival of the milk lorry and, equally, on the arrival of the milk cheque, which is just as important. As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are sympathetic to the principle of the establishment of a single voluntary body to succeed the MMB, which has done good service for the past 60 years. That is why we are taking so seriously our consideration of the board's proposals before giving our final approval.

Mr. Tyler

In considering at what point to make her statement, will the Minister consider the possibility of obtaining a cast iron guarantee from those organisations that have indulged in delaying tactics—notably the Dairy Trade Federation—that they will not seek to delay the scheme any further after her decision by, for example, referring the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission or the European Commission or seeking an injunction in the courts? Will she obtain that guarantee so that milk producers throughout the country can be assured that we can progress towards a successful conclusion of the talks?

Mrs. Shephard

I would certainly deplore any delaying tactics from whichever source they came.

Mr. John Greenway

Is my right hon. Friend aware that milk farmers in my constituency—those who are in favour of Milk Marque as well as those who wish to join some other marketing scheme—are sick and tired of the delays in ending this problem? Will she take on board not only what has been said in the House today but the many letters that I know she has received from farmers throughout the country? Does she agree that it would be wrong to put in place a scheme that could suddenly be challenged by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission or even by the European Commission and that we want a scheme that will last as long as the milk marketing board has lasted?

Mrs. Shephard

Of course the delay is unwelcome. It is also very worrying for milk producers and everyone else involved in the milk industry. My hon. Friend was right to underline the importance of getting the scheme right, particularly those aspects that might be of interest to the competition authorities.

Mr. John D. Taylor

As the first vesting date was postponed, there is no reason to assume that the new vesting date of 1 November will not also be postponed. Does the right hon. Lady accept that the longer the delay, the greater the number of producers who will sign up with other creameries? That will leave a much smaller number of producers to sign up for the revised scheme proposed by the MMB. Therefore, the delay is very damaging. Will the right hon. Lady make the very earliest decision on the revised scheme that has been submitted to her for approval?

Mrs. Shephard

I stress again that I deplore the delay. It is unsettling and sometimes has the results and effects described by the right hon. Gentleman. I assure him that no unnecessary delay will emanate from the Ministry, but we need to get the scheme right.