HL Deb 23 February 1999 vol 597 cc945-8

2.43 p.m.

Lord Palmer

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare an interest as a residual beneficiary of a banana-producing plantation in the West Indies.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made with the United States Government regarding the threat of a trade dispute arising from the European Union agreement with ACP countries on banana production.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, the Government have made their views known to the United States Government on a number of occasions. We shall continue to work with the European Commission in pursuit of a solution within the World Trade Organisation, so avoiding the imposition of trade sanctions by the United States.

Lord Palmer

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that one of the most serious problems is the continued uncertainty facing ACP producers and, indeed, the likes of the textile producers in the Scottish Borders who obviously rely heavily on exports to the United States of America?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I wholly agree with what the noble Lord has said and with the sentiments behind it. We are very concerned with the threats to the ACP banana producers and with the, in our view, quite unwarranted threat of United States sanctions against British producers.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, although I welcome the answer that has just been given by my noble friend the Minister, does he agree that it is only because we are able to speak with a single voice in the European Union on this and, indeed, on other issues that we have any chance of resisting these outrageous threats being made by the US Government and insisting on the application of the rule of law through the WTO?

Lord Donoughue

Absolutely, my Lords. We are working, and have always worked, with the EU to present a united position. We have resisted the attempts of the US to deal with this in a unilateral way. We believe that the WTO is there to settle matters in a multilateral way.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, while that statement is no doubt absolutely correct, does the Minister recognise that the position in the cashmere industry in the Scottish borders is so serious, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, that Members of Parliament in the other place are raising the matter this afternoon during Scottish Questions? They will be asking the Secretary of State for Scotland to raise the matter at Cabinet level. They believe that the Prime Minister should speak directly to President Clinton because of what we believe to be improper financial pressure being brought to bear on the Democratic Party in the United States as regards this matter.

Lord Donoughue

Yes, my Lords. The Scottish cashmere industry is one of the main producers which have been singled out. It has absolutely nothing to do with the banana issue. I believe that there are over 2,000 jobs in the Scottish Lowlands, about 800 of which are very dependent on exports to the United States. We shall do all we can in defence of those workers and that industry.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I thank the Minister for what he has said on this serious matter. I hope that the negotiations with the United States on the matter are being taken up at all levels; and I very much support what the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has just said. However, will the Minister draw to the attention of those concerned the very real danger in the Caribbean, should the banana industry collapse, of those economies turning to something much more unpleasant and much more dangerous for all of us?

Lord Donoughue

Yes, my Lords, certain Caribbean countries are enormously dependent on the banana trade. The alternatives are clearly much less desirable. It is for that reason that we have been dealing with the United States Government at all levels; indeed, the Prime Minister has dealt with the President. The matter has also been taken up by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Minister of Agriculture. They have all made representations to their opposite numbers in the US.

Lord Acton

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that I have an American wife and that I spend part of each year in America? I am deeply concerned about this matter of bananas. Could not a high level delegation of Ministers fly to Washington DC to make representations directly to the United States Government and stay there until they get a sensible answer?

Noble Lords


Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I can see the attractions of removing much of the Government, especially for an unspecified time period. I would quite enjoy being on that delegation, but we would all have to get permission from the Chief Whip. I can assure my noble friend that everything that is possible is being done. However, as has been said, the best way to make such representations is with a united European voice and through the WTO. For the information of the House, I can tell noble Lords that there are two key dates in that respect. On 2nd March, the WTO arbitrator is due to report on our complaint about the threat of sanctions. Moreover, on 12th April, a report is to be produced on whether our amendments to the banana regime do in fact bring it in line with WTO requirements.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, if sanctions were to be introduced, will the Minister say whether the Government will consider direct sanctions against the Chiquita company because of the financial lobbying that company has undertaken in Washington?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, it is reported that that company contributed about three-quarters of a billion dollars in the previous election campaign, although I do not know whether that is true. We cannot jump the sanctions hurdle until we get to it.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, in what he has said to the Minister relative to unemployment in the south of Scotland. That unemployment is serious under the present Government, particularly in towns such as Hawick, Selkirk, Galashiels and in Dumfries. It has been rising under the present Government. Will the Minister do all he can within a matter of weeks to try to get this matter resolved before the situation deteriorates still further?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we are certainly doing all we can. We are concerned about unemployment. As I am sure the noble Lord knows, in the Lowlands in general the unemployment level is, I believe, 4.2 per cent. That is a little lower than the average. However, in towns such as Hawick about 90 per cent. of manufacturing jobs are in the textile industry. We are anxious to obtain a satisfactory conclusion on this matter.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, who will pay for essential diversification projects, or are recipient nations once again to burden themselves with an excessive debt burden?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we shall have to see what the situation is after the WTO decisions are taken. However, the noble Viscount should be aware that in Brussels consideration is already being given to an aid plan of a quarter of a billion pounds over the next 10 years.

Lord Rowallan

My Lords, will the Minister comment on the fact that in this House we are able to buy only Colombian bananas as opposed to those from ACP countries?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I do not think that comes within my responsibilities. However, I am sure that the relevant authorities will bear in mind both the need to provide Members of the House with the greatest choice and the need to provide Members of the House with a better taste, and will also remember our traditional obligations to the ACP countries.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, as this is a matter of trade and trade disputes, why is this Question not being answered by the Department of Trade and Industry?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, it is the Government who answer and today I speak for the Government.