HL Deb 13 June 1990 vol 520 cc295-8

2.45 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the current cost to the United Kingdom of the contribution to the subsidy and support given by the European Community to the tobacco growing industry in the Community.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, the United Kingdom contributes to the European Community budget as a whole and not to individual sectors. Furthermore, the UK's contribution each year is abated according to the balance of the UK contribution and receipts in the previous year. The cost of the Community's tobacco regime in 1989 was 1,139 million ecus—that is, £746 million.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that informative reply. In view of the decline in smoking in Europe, is it not a fact that the European tobacco industry is now pushing its highly dangerous sulphur-orientated product in the third world? Is supporting an effort of that kind, with all the likely effects on the health of the third world, something with which Her Majesty's Government wish to be associated or even should spend one penny on?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, two-thirds of the European Community's exports outside the Community go to the developed countries. The major trading partners are the United States of America and Eastern Europe, particularly Bulgaria and Romania. Only one-third of third country exports goes to the developing world, with Africa absorbing most of this. Egypt is the single most important importer of Community tobacco, purchasing 50 per cent. of African imports.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that your Lordships' Select Committee on European Communities affairs criticised price proposals for the tobacco regime as recently as 1988 on both financial and health grounds? Will the noble Earl ask his right honourable friend the Minister to consider pressing for a review of the Community's policy on tobacco growing to take account of justified criticisms as well as suggestions that growers are not able to change to other crops for reasons of climate and soil conditions? In this age of biotechnology, the defence of "no alternative crop" seems particularly strange.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord's first supplementary question is yes. On the second question, the tobacco regime is important because of its role in safeguarding income and employment in the poorer areas of the Mediterranean member states, particularly Greece and Italy. Tobacco cultivation is labour intensive and the land is of poor quality. There are no real alternative crops available to these farmers. This explains the difficulties experienced by the United Kingdom in seeking to reduce the costs of the regime.

Furthermore, about 200,000 holdings are involved in tobacco cultivation. During 1986 almost 800,000 people were engaged in tobacco production. In Greece up to one-third of the agicultural labour force is involved in the cultivation of tobacco.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, in answer to a previous question the noble Lord said that only one-third of the total crop is exported to the third world. Is the Minister saying on behalf of the Government that because of employment, investment and profits in Europe, they are prepared to export this death-dealing tobacco and have it dumped in third world countries, regardless of health or morality? Will the Government come out firmly and say, "That is wrong and we shall do everything to stop it"?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, the noble Lord has made an extremely good point. The situation poses a dilemma. The Community is currently introducing a whole series of measures aimed at reducing the prevalence of cancer as part of the Europe against Cancer programme. The Community's massive support for the production of largely high tar tobacco makes no sense at all in this context.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in ancient times those areas of Greece and Turkey which now produce tobacco were once covered with beautiful, carbon dioxide consuming woodlands which could also be made employment intensive? Perhaps that should be brought to the attention of the appropriate members of those great countries.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for his observation. I shall endeavour to pass it on.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that this area of cultivation in Europe is, according to succeeding reports of the Court of Auditors, one in which there is widespread fraud and irregularity? Will the Government give due attention to that point? Is the noble Earl further aware that according to the figures he has made available to us today the net contribution by the United Kingdom to the sum he mentioned is in the area of £150 million per annum?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, as regards the first part of the question of the noble Lord, the Government take fraud extremely seriously. As regards the figure of £150 million, I do not have the exact figure but it must be in that region.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, can the noble Earl draw for the benefit of the House any useful comparison between the number of people killed by the coca leaf, against which we send our navies and air forces, and Close killed by the tobacco leaf, the subsidisation of which we contribute to to the tune of £150 million a year?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, over 400,000 people die in the Community each year because of their tobacco habit. In the UK alone that costs the health service around £500 million a year.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in the light of that answer of my noble friend, would it not be better if the employment problems of the countries to which he referred were met by converting the land at present used for tobacco to food production, for which there is an enormous market adjoining them in Eastern Europe? Will my noble friend say whether, as a matter of principle, Her Majesty's Government favour using public money to subsidise the production of tobacco?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I feel that is going fairly wide of the Question on the Order Paper. However, I shall certainly draw it to the attention of my right honourable friend.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, is there any hope of persuading manufacturers not to expunge the health warning from the packets of tobacco which they export to the third world?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, again I shall draw that to the attention of my right honourable friend.