HC Deb 02 November 1995 vol 265 cc383-5
10. Sir David Knox

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he will next meet the president of the National Farmers Union to discuss the dairy sector. [38933]

Mr. Douglas Hogg

I regularly meet representatives of the agriculture industry, including the president of the National Farmers Union, to discuss issues of importance to them. I have also had the pleasure of meeting in the last couple of weeks representatives of the Dairy Industry Federation and Milk Marque. Earlier this week, I attended the Dairy Industry Federation's annual lunch.

Sir David Knox

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the concern of the Cheshire dairy farmers about black market trading in milk, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), is shared by the overwhelming majority of Staffordshire dairy farmers? Only a few cases have reached the courts so far. Does my right hon. and learned Friend expect many more cases to reach the courts, and has he discussed that with the president of the NFU?

Mr. Hogg

That is an important issue, on which my hon. Friend the Minister of State has just spoken. There have been three prosecutions in the recent past, and the impact of the super-levy should act as a substantial deterrent. I very much hope that there will be further prosecutions if the evidence supports them. It is a serious matter against which we must strike.

Mr. Stevenson

In his discussions with the NFU on the dairy sector, did the Minister discuss the fact that the cost of the dairy sector and the CAP is due to increase substantially in the next few years? Did he further discuss the fact that the Paymaster General attended a meeting in Brussels in July and accepted a 10.9 per cent. increase in common agricultural policy expenditure? Does that not mean that the Government's assurance that they intend to control the cost of the bloated CAP regime is not worth the paper on which it is written?

Mr. Hogg

That is simply not right and, coming from the Labour party, it is not attractive, because between 1974 and 1979, when Labour had some responsibility for CAP expenditure, it quadrupled. The 1992 reforms are an important step in constraining expenditure. We have set guidelines within which CAP expenditure should stay, but we must go on pressing for reform, and we will do that. The dairy farmers that I have met recently have expressed themselves satisfied with the return from their sector.

Mr. Nigel Evans

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that we are the largest consumers of liquid milk in the European Union and that Lancashire housewives resent the fact that, while Lancashire farmers can produce the milk that they would wish to drink, because of the quota system, we have to import that milk?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is right. We are not self-sufficient in milk. The principal reason for that, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State said in answer to a previous question, is that the agri-monetary policy pursued by the Labour party in the 1970s prevented the development of the British dairy industry to the extent that would otherwise have been the case. Hence, the 1981 base year was less favourable than otherwise one would wish. As to the future, in the long term we should like to secure market circumstances leading to a phasing out of quotas and, in the interim, we should like to secure, although it will be a difficult negotiation, inter-European Union tradeability in milk quotas.

Dr. Strang

May I remind the Minister that, under the common agricultural policy, we spend more than £3,000 million a year on support for the dairy industry? Although much of that money is spent wastefully, just 3 per cent. is spent on subsidies for school milk. Would it not be a disgrace if, as part of the public expenditure review, the Government cut that spending?

Mr. Hogg

I am bound to say that, applied in such a context, the word "disgrace" is simply absurd.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

May I seek a firm commitment from my right hon. and learned Friend? Does he agree that the United Kingdom has some of the finest grassland in the European Community, and that that grassland is ideal for dairy farming and milk production? Will he give an assurance that it is Government policy to increase the milk quota for United Kingdom dairy farmers for as long as quotas exist in the European Community—bearing in mind that we are not self-sufficient in milk?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is right: we are not self-sufficient in milk, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have already given.

I had the pleasure of visiting Cheshire last Friday, and of meeting many dairy farmers there. I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend has said about the productivity and skills of dairy workers in his county. As for quotas, if it were possible, we would indeed wish to secure a larger quota, but when I ask myself whether we are likely to achieve it, the answer is "Probably not"—hence the importance that we attach to persuading the European Union to allow the leasing of quotas across EU national frontiers.