HL Deb 16 April 1970 vol 309 cc581-6

4.23 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Price Stability of Imported Products (Specified Commodities) (Eggs) Order 1970, which was laid before this House on March 6, be approved. When we were debating the Eggs (Guaranteed Prices) Order 1969 about a year ago I stressed the importance of a minimum import price scheme for shell eggs and egg products. This Order pro-vides the foundation for the scheme.

The Order is made under Section 1 of the Agriculture and Horticulture Act 1964. The first step in the procedure is that Ministers must specify by Order the commodities to which they wish to apply minimum import price and levy arrangements. Once such an Order is in operation it is open to Ministers to proceed to the making of two further Orders, setting out respectively the levels of the minimum import prices for the specified commodities and the arrangements for the charging of levies for the purpose of maintaining those price levels. This Order is the first step and specifies the commodities to which minimum import price and levy arrangements may be applied.

The Order is concerned with the group of commodities (I am sure that noble Lords will be intrigued by this) which falls within the Customs tariff heading, "04. 05". Eggs in shell, frozen whole egg, liquid whole egg, dried whole egg and egg yolks are the commodities which fall within this heading. The Order specifies that all these commodities, with one exception, are commodities which the Ministers may prescribe in minimum import price and levy arrangements. The one exception is egg yolks. This is a specialised product, meeting a comparatively limited demand, and it has been excluded on de minimis grounds. The present Order came into operation on March 7, and the Ministers then made and laid before Parliament the two other Orders to which I have referred.

My Lords, there has already been some discussion in this House on the Government's proposals on future subsidy and marketing arrangements for eggs, and I am sure that noble Lords are familiar with the broad principles of the arrangements. I know that I have no need to explain them to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, who knows far more about that than I do. Those proposals were directed towards establishing a basically free market for home-produced eggs replacing the British Egg Marketing Board by a more broadly based Eggs Authority. The point that I should like to emphasise is that we regard the system of minimum import prices for shell eggs and egg products as an integral part of the new arrangements for eggs. As we move towards, and into, a basically free market for home-produced eggs, there should be an effective and continuing safeguard for the home producer against the risk of market disruption by excessively low priced imports. The arrangements for which the present Order lays the foundation are being introduced in order to provide this essential safeguard for the home industry. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Price Stability of Imported Products (Specified Commodities) (Eggs) Order 1970, be approved.— (Lord Beswick.)


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for explaining to us the purpose of this Order, and assure him that, despite its complexities, I welcome it? I shall have a comment to make later, in the few words that I have to say, about the procedure in regard to this Order. But on the general principle, as the noble Lord has said, this is part of the Government's policy to move eggs out of the guaranteed price schedule, where they have had a guarantee under the 1947 and 1957 Acts. They have had a guaranteed price for the past twenty years or so, and now they are moved into the free market. This minimum import price machinery is a safeguard to make sure that the home producer has reasonable certainty of the home markets.

One of the major reasons why the Government are making this effort to move the eggs out of the guaranteed price schedule (it is the first time that the commodity has ever been so moved) is the capacity of modern production to expand rapidly, with the result that surplus is continuously overhanging the market. In these circumstances, it obviously is not very good sense to continue with a system of price guarantee costing the taxpayer some £13 million a year. So I accept the change in principle, and I also accept the safeguard which the noble Lord has mentioned.

The risk to the housewife is negligible. Normally, imports do not amount, on average, to more than about 2 per cent. per annum—they are quite marginal. Quite a small increase in that import, say another 2 per cent., could be enough to knock the price structure in this country down even as much as 6d. a dozen, with disaster to all the home producers. It is no more than a fair bargain to the home producers to give them this longstop assurance. I have hesitated a little in saying that it is no more than a fair bargain, because the National Farmers' Union do not think it is a fair bargain at all: they are bitterly opposed to it. Personally, I think it is the right thing to do, and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, would like me to say how pleased he is to find the 1964 Act on the Statute Book which enables him to do it, because this must be a great help to him. I am glad that we left it there for him.

May I also say that I particularly welcome the fact that the Government have extended the effects of this Order to egg products as well as shell eggs? This is of basic importance. The Reorganisation Commission did not recommend the inclusion of egg products in the import control, but I am sure that the Government are right to do it, because otherwise an excessive import of egg products could easily undermine the whole market.

The noble Lord referred in passing to two other Orders that are related to this one. There is a point here that this Order on its own really is, I suggest, unintelligible, even to your Lordships. The fact is that there are two other Orders, subject to the negative resolution procedure, which do not normally come before this noble House and which are related to, and need to be read together with, this Affirmative Order. I have been able, with the help of the Printed (Paper Office, to get copies of these Orders from the other place. They set out the schedule of minimum prices which it is proposed to introduce, and also the machinery for prescribing a levy. Of course, they are the pieces of vital machinery that go with the Order that is before your Lordships. Perhaps I might make a suggestion to the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, that the Ministry concerned, or the Officers of the House, might see whether there is some way in which these negative Orders, where they are so directly related to an Affirmative Order, can be brought before this House so that we may have the whole picture before us.

There are only two points in these other two Orders to which I should like to refer. I feel that I should be out of order if I went further, and references to them must be impossible for noble Lords to follow without copies before them. I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, whether the producers' repre-sentatives—I suppose the National Farmers' Union, and possibly the Egg Marketing Board—have been consulted with regard to the schedule of minimum prices, and, if so, are they satisfied with them? Are they satisfied that they pro-vide a reasonable assurance that we shall not have excessive quantities of imported eggs dumped here?

Secondly, with regard to the schedule in the second Order (Order 359), which sets out the countries that are to be excluded from the effects of the levy, can we be certain that we may not receive from those countries — particularly Holland, which I notice is among them— an excessive quantity of imports, as they will not in practice be subject to the levy? These are two small technical points that I should like to put to the noble Lord, but I do in all seriousness ask him, among the many things he looks after so well in the procedure of the House, if he will consider whether it is possible to find some way of having negative Orders brought along at the same time as Affirmative Orders when they are so closely related. I have much pleasure in welcoming the Orders.

4.33 p.m.


My Lords, I had a little difficulty myself over this negative Order situation, but the fact is, I am informed, that there are so many negative Orders it would be quite impossible to keep a stock of each one of them in the other place. There is a list published (I am open to correction), I think once a fortnight, of negative Orders which are before the House, and it would be possible for the noble Lord to study that list to see what was, as it were, in the pipe-line.

The noble Lord asked me whether I would express some satisfaction for the Act for which he was responsible, or in part for which his Government were responsible. I go out of my way to express complete satisfaction that that Act should be on the Statute Book. But I am bound to tell him that we are now following the precedents which were established by that Act so far as negative Orders were concerned. We are doing no more and no less than was done by his Government in connection, for example, with the arrangement for minimum price Orders for cereals, stemming from the 1964 Act. The noble Lord asked me why certain countries have been excluded from the provisions of these Orders. The reason is that with each of those countries which are excluded from the special levy we have an agreement under which they have under-taken to fulfil obligations with regard to minimum import prices; and we accept that there will be no difficulty in the case of each of those countries listed in one of the negative Orders.

The noble Lord asked whether I thought that the prices set out in the other Order (set out in some detail, as he will find) were adequate. In the opinion of Her Majesty's Government they will be sufficient to fulfil the objective of safeguarding the domestic producer. They are a little above the recent level of prices from most sources. After taking account of on-costs from the ports, and allowing for the discount at which imported eggs must sell in relation to home-produced eggs, the mini-mum import prices are broadly equivalent to a first-hand selling price of 3s. 1d. per dozen. This is the level of the indicated price in the egg guarantee arrangements—that is, the price which should be received by the Board if domestic supplies of eggs are sufficient but not excessive, and imports are at normal level. In any case, of course, the rate of levy can be varied, and varied at quite short notice, should market conditions so warrant.

I was also asked by the noble Lord whether the Fanners' Union had agreed this. I understand that they welcome the arrangements in principle, though not unnaturally, and I should say not un-usually, they thought that a higher level should have been set for the minimum prices. As for the trade themselves, they would have preferred a system of quota, but I think the noble Lord will agree with me that in the circumstances that was quite impracticable. For ourselves, as I say, we believe that the prices will be sufficient, but I can assure the noble Lord that my right honourable friend will watch the situation; and if the market conditions did so demand, he would not hesitate to take appropriate action. With that explanation I hope again for agreement to this Order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.