HC Deb 12 November 1998 vol 319 cc463-4
2. Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

What recent discussions he has had with supermarket chains about meat prices. [58042]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

With my noble Friend Lord Donoughue, I was present when my right hon. Friend the Minister met representatives of the British Retail Consortium on 3 November. They explained some of the factors affecting the retail price of meat and we agreed a number of measures that should help UK producers.

Mr. Tipping

Given that some controversy has arisen between some producers and some supermarket chains over the fact that farmgate prices have fallen rapidly, while supermarket shelf prices have remained static, will my hon. Friend consider two possibilities: first, of commissioning some independent research to find out what is happening in the food and price chain; and, secondly and more important, of bringing producers and retailers together to promote British beef as the best buy—best on hygiene and best on animal welfare?

Mr. Rooker

On the second part of my hon. Friend's question, we are doing all that we can to bring producers, suppliers and supermarkets together in a constructive way. On the first part of his question, it would be best if the House awaited the forthcoming report of the Office of Fair Trading, which follows the important report of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. Last week's meeting was constructive, especially in respect of the pig sector and the commitments given by the supermarkets.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

The Minister and his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food know perfectly well the level of the prices that farmers are getting for meat, and they know the prices that are being charged in supermarkets: there is an enormous margin. The supermarkets are operating a cartel against the consumer, and it is those same supermarkets that are funding, to an extremely large degree, the Labour party—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!] Naturally, I am gratified that Labour Members should feel so indignant. Can the Minister not say to his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that, the next time one of his sponsors calls in at No. 10, he might mention the outrage in the countryside that is caused by the enormous margin between what producers get and what retailers are charging?

Mr. Rooker

Some of the points that underlie the right hon. Gentleman's question have led to the supermarkets feeling very unloved and have brought about some of the concessions that they made in respect of sourcing supplies in this country, sourcing pigmeat only from suppliers that meet the same welfare standards as those that will be imposed in this country on 1 January, and correctly labelling any imported meat that they bring in, so that it is fairly labelled and they do not try to sell it off—I nearly said "flog it off'—as British when it is not.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Does my hon. Friend realise that having a go at New Zealand producers, who represent only a small part of our import market, while not doing anything about the supermarkets that are really ripping off the consumer, is counter-productive? What we need is a sensible agreement that does not bankrupt British farmers or those who supply us with good-quality produce; and, at the same time, we must ensure that some members of the Conservative party, some of whom are in the House, do not walk away with bags of gold at the expense of the housewife.

Mr. Rooker

My hon. Friend is right. Nothing that the Government have done or supported is an attack on our suppliers and friends in New Zealand, who have supplied this country with quality produce for decades. It is up to individual producers and supermarkets in this country to arrange their supply chain. We ask them to consider the British supply chain. We ask them not to impose conditions on British food producers and then buy from foreign producers who do not meet the same welfare conditions.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

Does the Minister agree that, as farm incomes have decreased by more than £2 billion in the past two years, the very survival of British farmers depends on a lot more than supermarket prices—it depends on direct action by the Government? As we have been promised a statement in the House next week, will the Minister confirm that, as a minimum, he will use the statement to apply the whole of the large underspend on the agriculture budget from the past two years to extend the calf processing scheme for a year, to raise hill livestock compensatory allowances by 50 per cent. and to enable the agrimonetary compensation currently available for the livestock sector to be taken up?

Mr. Rooker

I ask the hon. Gentleman and the rest of the House to await the statement that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has offered to make next Monday or Tuesday. It is preposterous to expect detailed answers from the Dispatch Box today when we have promised a statement next week.

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