HL Deb 09 February 1984 vol 447 cc1291-4

4.40 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Statement is as follows:

"I represented the United Kingdom Government at the Council of Agriculture Ministers, together with my honourable friend the Minister of State. The council had a first discussion of the commission's proposals on agricultural prices for 1984. These were presented by the commission with the earlier proposals for changes in the common agricultural policy. The council had a detailed exchange of views but no decisions were taken. Officials will be carrying forward the work between now and the next council at the end of the month.

"The council reached agreement on an import quota for 1984 of 50,000 tonnes of beef and veal for the processing industry. This is an important source of raw material for the processing industry. Given the opposition of some member states to these imports, it was a very satisfactory outcome to have reached this agreement so early in the year.

"Because of the continued opposition of some member states, there was no progress on new long-term arrangements for imports of New Zealand butter.

"In a discussion of the commission's new structure proposals, it was evident that a great deal more work is needed before decisions can be taken. No agreement was possible on the terms for a rollover of the existing directives.

"My agriculture colleagues and I recognise that producers cannot be left in a continuing state of uncertainty about claims and applications under the schemes concerned. I am, therefore, delighted to be able to inform the House that payments of the 1984 hill livestock compensatory allowances will begin immediately; and that we shall also begin approvals of outstanding and new applications under the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Scheme, the Farm and Horticulture Development Scheme, the Agriculture and Horticulture Co-operation Scheme for forage groups and the Farm Structure (Payment to Outgoers) Scheme".

That concludes my right honourable friend's Statement.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement I think I should offer my condolences to him for having to read such a disappointing one. Frankly, as a politician and as a farmer—I must declare my interest—the Statement is very disappointing indeed, although the last paragraph, which announces that payment of compensatory allowances for livestock schemes is to start at last, will be welcome news to hill farmers in all three countries who have been awaiting the money for a considerable time.

Can the noble Lord say what the Statement means when it says: We shall also begin approvals of the outstanding and new applications."? Does this mean payments, or only approvals? Will the low ground men have to wait for their payments? I should be glad if the Minister can clear up this matter. The import quota for 1984 of 50,000 tonnes of beef will certainly please the processors. Is there any distribution of this quota to various countries, or is it a case of devil take the hindmost? What is to happen?

On the New Zealand butter arrangements, I had thought that under the 1972–73 negotiations we would continue to import butter with steady reductions until finished, with no new negotiations to take place. I wonder whether the Minister can clear up that point.

On the whole, there is little information in the Statement. In fact, one almost has to go to the Financial Times for information. I have been chided in the past for quoting the Financial Times too much. Its account is even more depressing than the Statement. The headline yesterday was: EEC farm ministers fail to bridge gap on reforms and prices". It is worse today. The headline reads: Brussels fears farm row will wreck summit". I do not know whether the Minister agrees. It is rather alarming to read the remarks of M. Rocard, the French Minister. The report states: M. Rocard said after this week's two-day meeting of Farm Ministers that the summit may well have to break their impasse. The Commission believes that this risks dooming it to failure under the weight of technical detail and disagreements which sank the Athens summit in December.". That, as we know, is exactly what happened.

One recalls all the complications in the regulations, prices and so on. Believe me, as a member of your Lordships' sub-committee on EC agriculture I know only too well the detail that is involved. If this issue is to go to the summit, will we have to wait until after the end of March when we have been repeatedly promised that a settlement will be made? It makes life difficult for farmers when negotiations continue, in some cases, right up to December before the issue is decided.

I appreciate the attitude of the Germans when they see that their incomes may drop by 15 per cent. I have before me the annual review of agriculture in this country, issued yesterday, from which I see that farm incomes are likely to drop by nearly 18 per cent. I can see Ministers' difficulties from a political point of view if figures of this sort are to be realised in all 10 countries. I feel that it is a very disappointing Statement. The Minister must be very disappointed, as well as everyone else. Let us hope that the slight optimism in the Statement will come to pass.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, in the regrettable absence of my noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie it falls to me to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. It is, admittedly, a very disappointing Statement. Not being very conversant with many of the details of the matters discussed by the agriculture Ministers. I simply take note of the apparent fact that no decision was taken by them in respect of the obviously necessary reform of the common agricultural policy. I inquire whether there is any prospect of agreement on this very difficult and important subject being forthcoming at the next meeting of Ministers, which is to take place, I understand, at the end of the month. If not, does the Minister agree that everything will depend on the next summit meeting, which will, I believe, take place at the beginning of March?

In the absence of detailed compromises worked out by experts, as regards which there appears to have been little or no progress—I would ask the Minister to confirm that this is so—are we really to suppose that the heads of state and government will, by themselves, in a few days, be able to reach the agreement that is now essential for the very continuance in being of the European Economic Community? In the meantime, we can be thankful for small mercies; namely, the payment of 1984 hill livestock compensatory allowances, which are to begin immediately, and a few other matters mentioned in the Statement.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, both the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, and the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, are correct in saying that it is the Government's prime objective, or one of their prime objectives, that the growth in agricultural guarantee spending should be markedly less than that of own resources. It is on that vital point that agreement was not reached at this last agricultural Ministers meeting. When the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, asks, "What are the next steps?", the answer is that negotiations on CAP reform are now proceeding in the context of the commission's proposal for agricultural prices for 1984–1985. We shall have to come to these matters again in the agricultural council and see if we can make better progress.

Indeed, so far as progress is concerned, because of the Government's decision to take action—the decision of my right honourable friend together with his right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland, for Northern Ireland and for Wales—my right honourable friend's payments of the hill livestock compensatory allowances and, indeed, other remaining grant schemes at least now sort out the fact that grants will be paid to those who are awaiting payment. The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, asked whether it was only to be for those who are in the hills and whether it would leave those who are not in the hills out in the cold. The answer is, No; immediate arrangements are being made for first payments under all the schemes that I mentioned and that means that those schemes will now be going ahead.

The noble Lord also asked me about how the distribution of the import quota for beef and veal works out. It works out by individual applications made by this country to the pool of 50,000 tonnes of beef and veal for the processing industry which has now been agreed. It means, if I may slightly change the noble Lord's expression, that it is first come, first served.

The noble Lord asked me about the very important question of New Zealand butter. The present state of play is that for January and February the Community is continuing to take in butter from New Zealand, based on a notional quota for this year of 83,000 tonnes. I repeat that this is for the months of January and February, pending agreement. That is another reason why it was so necessary to get agreement. The Commission has proposed a long-term arrangement which would run over a period of five years with degressivity from year to year of 2,000 tonnes each year, starting from 83,000 tonnes. I would simply say on behalf of the Government that it looks as though there could be a basis for some agreement there. But it is the view of Her Majesty's Government that any agreement ought to start from 87,000 tonnes, and that is certainly the basis upon which we shall be negotiating. I think that I have answered the individual points which noble Lords put to me on my right honourable friend's Statement.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the approval of the meat imports for processing will be much welcomed by the food processors in this country? I only hope that they will get their fair share in the first come, first served race, and that they will note quickly the need for that.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Mottistone. All I would add is that, as I understand it, the procedures for applications will be exactly the same as they have been previously.