HL Deb 10 June 1993 vol 546 cc1037-9

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the estimated cost of the subsidy to be paid in the current year by the European Commission to the growers of tobacco; and whether this represents an increase or decrease over the previous year.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, Community expenditure for 1993 is forecast at 1,401 mecu (that is, £1,113 million) as compared with 1,233 mecu (£875 million) for the previous year.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Can he say whether Her Majesty's Government have made any effort to stop this appalling waste of money on growing a commodity while at the same time financing propaganda to try to persuade people not to use it?

Earl Howe

My Lords, we achieved considerable success in last year's CAP reform to reduce Community subsidies on tobacco. As I said in reply to a Question on 4th May, the Commission estimates that between 1994 and 1997 Community expenditure will reduce by 25 per cent. or more. We shall make strenuous efforts in 1996 when the next review of the regime occurs to press for a further reduction.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, how can the Commission possibly justify continuing to spend money for the production of tobacco? One understands the idea of spending money to support people who previously grew tobacco but not for the production of a substance which everyone knows is extremely dangerous to health. If it were produced now, it would be banned in almost any advanced country.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I think that many Members of your Lordships' House will have considerable sympathy with what the noble Lord says. However, if the Community were to put an end altogether to tobacco subsidies, that would not only have undesirable social consequences for southern member states but also would in no way alter consumer demand for tobacco products. If the Community were not to grow its own tobacco, it would simply import it. That is why it is more sensible to tackle the problem at the other end by trying to reduce the prevalence of smoking and at the same time making sure that the tobacco that is grown in the EC is of the less harmful, low tar varieties.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, will my noble friend seek to inform the members of the southern member states to which he referred that in the days when Athens led the world in democracy, the arts and architecture, and Sparta in professional defence, crops were still grown in their countries? Since the discovery of America, all the Mediterranean crops, from potatoes to sweet corn, are available there and are grown there profitably and all citrus fruits which have come since those days from the Far East are equally capable of being grown there.

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble and learned friend has made some pertinent observations. However, there are few crops such as tobacco which can be grown intensively, using family labour, which can give a comparable return per unit of land cultivated. There are in addition other considerations, including the lack of transport, the market infrastructure and so on in isolated areas and the need to avoid growing crops that are already in surplus.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, in view of the widespread allegations which have been made and substantially proved of massive fraud in this area of Community expenditure, how can Her Majesty's Government justify the increase in expenditure in this field under Title B.17 of the budget amounting to £101 million? How can they possibly justify that? Further, how can they justify having representation on the Council of Ministers concerned with the problem? How can they justify a Council request to the Commission to enlarge the budget in respect of Greece by £19 million? Those are matters which require urgent attention. They require subsidies by the taxpayers of Britain.

Earl Howe

My Lords, we are bound by the Treaty of Rome, which brings with it both obligations and benefits. The noble Lord is quite rightly concerned with the prevalence of fraud in the Community, but there are no specific figures for fraud in the tobacco sector. However, the establishment of control agencies and the reform of the regime to remove intervention and export refunds are steps which were agreed last year and which should reduce fraud in the sector.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, since we find it quite possible to pay farmers not to grow highly healthy and beneficial crops with the concurrence of the European Community, could we not find some way of paying tobacco growers not to grow a highly harmful crop?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I have already explained that the Community has a number of incentive schemes to induce tobacco growers to switch to alternative crops or to move to less harmful varieties. I believe that that represents the most cost-effective way forward.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the argument which he has reflected—namely, that if tobacco is not grown in Europe it will be obtained elsewhere—is the classic argument of the drug pedlar and the drug smuggler; if we do not sell it someone else will? Does he further agree that that is a thoroughly disreputable argument to advance to support this kind of operation? Will he reject such an argument whenever it is put to him?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I have already said that the Government believe that the absolute level of the Community budget for tobacco is too high. That is why we have been seeking to reduce it. But I also said that I do not believe that it was right to reduce it overnight. Some 200,000 families in the Community depend directly on the growing of tobacco, and about four times that number depend on it indirectly. What we have to seek to do is to reduce the absolute level of spending in an ordered way.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, bearing in mind that this was just one of the nonsenses to which we signed up when we joined the Community in 1972 and the Bill was put through on a guillotine, is it not all the more essential that we should ensure that there is sufficient time to discuss the Maastricht Treaty Bill at a reasonable hour of the day and not through the night, so that all Members can have adequate time to see that they are not indulging the Government in more nonsenses like this?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend the Leader of the House has borne those considerations in mind when agreeing the business for the forthcoming few weeks.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that those who have read the Maastricht Treaty will know that Article 130r sets out certain Community objectives, including, protecting human health [and the] prudent and the rational utilization of natural resources"? Do the Government believe that the tobacco regime meets those objectives of the treaty?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as I have already said, the Government are trying to tackle the problem at the other end by reducing demand for tobacco. The Health of the Nation White Paper identified a number of targets relating to smoking and related diseases which all government departments are working together to achieve. In particular, a reduction in the incidence of teenage smoking is a priority. We are taking a number of measures, including guidance to schools, a ban on advertising near playgrounds, stronger health warnings and so on.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, is it not a fact that we subsidise European tobacco of such high tar content that, thank goodness, the West will not accept it, and therefore it finds its way into third world countries, where it does the maximum damage to health?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point, which is why there is a conversion programme, as I have mentioned, to attract farmers towards converting their crops to lower tar varieties so as to obviate the very problem which he identifies.

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