Order for consideration, as amended, read.
To be considered on Monday 13 January at Seven o'clock.
1. Mr. Skinner : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he is now in a position to reveal the latest survey regarding dioxin levels in milk in the Bolsover area ; and if he will make a statement.
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Gummer) : I have already published all the results available to date. The results of the further survey--which involves complex and time-consuming testing--will be published as soon as possible.
Mr. Skinner : Is the Minister aware that on 10 December the National Rivers Authority told me, by letter, that it had taken two samples from the river--above the Coalite plant and below--and that the sample from the river above the plant showed a low level of dioxin, the one below the plant showed considerably higher levels of dioxin and that it is now certain that the dioxin is coming from the Coalite plant? As the Minister has said that the polluter must pay, will he give a guarantee that the polluter, Coalite, will pay compensation to the farmers concerned? Will he also hold a public inquiry so that the matter can be sorted put?
Mr. Gummer : My action in support of those farmers is well known to the hon. Gentleman. I am concerned that they should have all the help that they can get. The tests that we are carrying out are not yet complete. The tests done by the National Rivers Authority are different from those that we are doing. We shall provide all that information to the public so that decisions may be made. The decisions to which the hon. Gentleman refers are largely not for me.
Mr. Colvin : Is my right hon. Friend happy that the monitoring systems in Bolsover are as good as those in my constituency? There are a number of petrochemical plants in my constituency, as well as the Rechem International plant, which disposes of toxic waste, where Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution and the local district authority
Column 436carry out extensive monitoring. What additional monitoring does my right hon. Friend's Department carry out to ensure that toxic emissions cannot enter the food chain?
Mr. Gummer : Our survey programmes have been extensive and we have found nothing of a type similar to that which has been found in Derbyshire. We continue to conduct dioxin surveys. My job is to ensure that dioxin does not enter the food chain and we have a full programme of surveys to ensure that that does not happen. It was as a result of those surveys that we pinpointed two and, later, three farms and that is where the detailed tests are being carried out. In fact, we discovered the problem and acted immediately so that there would be no danger to public health. That is the role of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
Mr. William Ross : As it appears from the information published to date by the Minister that it is almost impossible to determine the exact source of the dioxin that is causing the problem, what comfort does that provide to farmers? If the source cannot be discovered, how can the polluter be forced to pay? Given that these are insidious and dangerous chemicals that have wide-ranging and far-reaching implications for the food industry, is not it time that the Government thought again about compensation in such circumstances?
Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman should not overstate the position. We have carried out and are carrying out extensive tests throughout the United Kingdom and have found that only three farms are affected. We are conducting detailed trials on those farms. As soon as we have the results of the trials we shall publish them. That is a perfectly reasonable statement of the position. I do not believe that it is helpful to suggest that the problem is widespread or in any way worrying, either for the consumer or for the farming industry as a whole. What I am concerned about is the specific effect on these three farms, which is extremely serious.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Maclean) : We will seek the adoption othe highest standards practicable for all laying hens when the existing Community legislation is reviewed next year.
Mr. Hinchliffe : Will the Minister give an assurance that the Government will implement in full the recommendations of the recent Farm Animal Welfare Council report on the welfare of laying hens in colony systems? Bearing in mind the fact that the report laid out only minimum welfare standards, will the Government take note of and act on the recommendations of the minority report issued at the same time?
Mr. Maclean : The hon. Gentleman has not grasped the fact that any progress that we make on improving animal welfare in Europe has to be on a Europeanwide basis. I am conscious that we want to improve drastically the standards of laying hens, not just in battery cages but in colony and other systems. If we are to be successful, we
Column 437must have Europeanwide agreement. If we acted unilaterally, we should end up putting out of business our own egg producers just to be flooded with eggs produced under the very system that we had banned.
Mr. Ron Davies : Should not consumers who are concerned about the welfare implications of intensive laying systems be able to shop accordingly? In the light of the Minister's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), will he guarantee that at European level he will press for a system of mandatory labelling so that eggs are labelled "battery", "barn eggs", "free range" or whatever? Is not that the most effective way of harnessing consumer choice in the cause of improving welfare standards?
Mr. Maclean : Of course. In all areas of food policy we believe in the principle that the consumer should choose and have sufficient information to do so. We are consulting others on systems to ensure that consumers have a proper choice when buying eggs and other foodstuffs. This is an area where extensive work needs to be done to ensure that the consumer is not misled because of the plethora of terms that are applied. I do not want to go on a dictionary-chasing exercise, laying down one word only to find that the marketing men have circumvented it by finding another word.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry) : In the first nine months of this year total United Kingdom beef exports amounted to just over 84, 000 tonnes worth about £167 million. For the same period last year exports were 78,000 tonnes worth just over £170 million.
Mr. Hague : Does my hon. Friend agree that the continued success of beef exports is not only good news for the industry but is a powerful reminder, after all the scare stories last year, that British beef is among the best in the world? Does he agree that the use of greater marketing expertise could open up still further opportunities for British exporters? Can he tell us whether and how he will be using the new marketing initiative of his Ministry to assist exports in the industry?
Mr. Curry : I agree with my hon. Friend that in the past the weakness when farmers have got together has been the quality of marketing and management that they bring to a project. The aim of the marketing grants is to address any marketing deficiencies and to provide good management, which we are willing to support. We also have an undertaking from the supermarkets and some of the food industry that they will assist in providing managers. That is an essential part of the campaign to ensure that our beef, which is the world's best, finds its way on to tables across the world.
Column 438hill farmers had a substantial drop in income in recent years? When will he announce an enhanced hill livestock compensatory allowance?
Mr. Curry : I agree with my hon. Friend that beef production is particularly important in the less-favoured areas. He will know that the Scottish Beef Club has had great success in the export market and that the idea of Scottish beef has been extremely successful. We are pursuing discussions on the future of the HLCAs following the autumn review and we shall announce the results as soon as we can.
Dr. David Clark : In view of the excellence of British beef, why is it that major British restaurant chains, which, incidentally make generous donations to the Conservative party, are unable, on the grounds of quantity, quality and consistency, to use a single ounce of British beef in their restaurants, when at the same time 1 million tonnes is rotting in intervention?
Mr. Curry : The reason is that under the general agreement on tariffs and trade beef from other countries, notably Australia, comes into the European Community. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman supports the liberalisation of trade under GATT and that he would not wish to defy the GATT rules. In many cases those imports are available at a cheaper price than within the Community. The answer is to unwind some of the absurdities of the intervention system which mean that far too much money is devoted to financing the depreciation of beef rather than to putting it on the table. We must also try to direct support much more to the specialist producers of high-quality British beef.
Mr. Taylor : Does my hon. Friend agree that information on agricultural issues for school children is important? Will he provide encouragement so that those schemes teach young people, particularly from inner-city areas, that the beauty of rural areas such as parts of my constituency is not necessarily just given by the good Lord, but often is created by man, because of the traditional and excellent pursuits of hunting and shooting?
Mr. Curry : It is important that children are able to find out what happens in the countryside. Three points are important. First, everyone should realise that the countryside is a workplace and not just a recreation place. Secondly, recreation and sport and conservation are allied activities. Thirdly, there is a great heritage in the countryside and we have sought to enhance that, in particular through our environmentally sensitive areas scheme. I have no doubt that that will be an extremely good place for school children to begin. I know that the farmers of Esher would particularly welcome school visits.
Column 439welfare? They will be greatly perturbed by the way in which his Department is undermining the provisions of my Badgers Act 1991 by issuing licences to more than 600 fox hunts to enable them to dig up badger setts and unleash terriers into them. Will the hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance this afternoon that that practice will stop immediately?
Mr. Curry : The hon. Gentleman has got hold of the wrong end of the stick. The dreadful things that he forecasts will not happen. I suggest that he waits for the consultation paper and I think that he will then be reassured.
There is no doubt that it would be to the advantage of school children if they could find out what happens in the countryside. Perhaps they should recognise that the countryside is not just a theme park where everything is nice, woolly and furry, but that real combat occurs between animals.
Mr. Sayeed : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is worth pointing out to young children that in 1950 it took a man on average industrial wages a week to earn enough to buy his Christmas turkey and that it now takes a person in a similar position just 90 minutes to do so? Is not that a tribute to the massive increase in the productivity of the farming community and to the massive increase in the earning power of the British worker?
Mr. Pike : Does the Minister also accept that, in considering agriculture, it is crucial to bear in mind the responsibility of all involved in the food chain, from production to consumption, to ensure that at all times consumers get good, healthy, pure products at the best possible price?
Mr. Curry : That is a self-evident truth. When children go into the countryside and visit farms, they will see that the conditions are completely different from those that their fathers may have seen when they worked on farms during their holidays--that was one of the great traditions of United Kingdom cities. Our aim is to ensure that food is wholesome, of high quality and produced as economically as possible and to ensure that, not only in the United Kingdom but in the export market, people have the benefits of an outstanding product.
Mr. Moss : Will my right hon. Friend clarify a puzzle which arose during yesterday's European Community debate? On two separate occasions, when questioned about the cost of implementing some proposals under the Maastricht treaty, the Leader of the Opposition said that the money could be found from the reform of the common agricultural policy. [Interruption.]
Mr. Moss : If the money can be saved from the reform of the common agricultural policy, would not that mean a reduction in income for farmers in my constituency, unemployment and a reduction in the rural economy?
Mr. Gummer : There is no doubt that reform of the common agricultural policy must be carried out in a way which ensures that there is no discrimination against farmers in the United Kingdom. The proposal of the Leader of the Opposition to spend the money that is now spent on British farmers on farmers in southern Europe is something about which every farmer should know--unless the Opposition spokesman will advise him differently and tell the House when he has so advised him.
Mr. Hume : Does the Minister agree that those mainly affected by the MacSharry proposals are the 3 per cent. of farmers across Europe who are large farmers and that small farmers--those with less than 125 acres of cereals, fewer than 90 beef cows or fewer than 40 milk cows--are not affected? When that is added to the fact that rural development is now a major part of the Maastricht treaty and of the MacSharry proposals, is not that a very good thing for rural society?
Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong and his views are opposed by the farmers unions of every part of the United Kingdom, including such "big" farmers as the crofters in Scotland. All of them say that the MacSharry plans would be devastating for farmers in every part of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman's views can give comfort only to the farmers outside the United Kingdom on whom the Leader of the Opposition wishes to spend our money.
Mr. Marlow : Would not my right hon. Friend be insulting British farmers if he were to suggest that he should decimate the financial support available to them so that it could be given to M. Delors for use as a slush fund for so-called cohesion--a bribe to the countries of southern Europe ? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that if anyone does make such a daft suggestion, that person's name is put loudly and clearly in front of the British farming community ?
Mr. Gummer : So far, the only person who has made that suggestion is the Leader of the Opposition. Therefore, I am quite happy to put his name-- at least in this context--in front of the general public. The proposals suggested yesterday by the Leader of the Opposition were clearly to ensure that British farmers reduced their already low incomes and that the money be used for development--rural and urban--in the southern parts of the European Community.
Dr. David Clark : Will the Minister explain to the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss) that the common agricultural policy which he seeks to defend is a grossly inefficient system ? As my right hon. Friend pointed out from the Dispatch Box yesterday, only £1 in £3 of agricultural support goes to farmers, which we do not think makes much sense. As the Minister and I agree that the fatal weakness of the MacSharry proposals is that they will increase the cost of the common agricultural policy, thus breaching the budgetary limit, will the Minister give the House a guarantee today that the
Column 441Government will use their right of veto on any proposals to breach the budgetary limit ? He has those powers ; will he use them ?
"it must be the major source of the re-orientated finance for the development of cohesion in the Community."--[ Official Report, 18 December 1991 ; Vol. 201, c. 290.]
That can mean only that the common agricultural policy is to be reformed in such a way as to take money from the United Kingdom and give it for cohesion to countries outside. The Leader of the Opposition would have signed the treaty without the debate at Maastricht--he would have accepted anything that M. Delors put in front of him. He would have lain down and been rolled over and that is why he must never be Prime Minister.
Mr. Marland : Far from taking money away from British farmers, will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind during his negotiations with Mr. MacSharry the inequity in national aids? Food from Britain has only six representatives trying to sell British food in Spain, whereas Food from France--its French equivalent--has 60 representatives trying to sell French food in Spain. Will my right hon. Friend find out what can be done to even up the balance? Far from reducing the amount of money available for selling British produce, will he try to increase it?
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend has highlighted the fundamental difference. The Government are determined to get rid of arrangements that differentiate against the United Kingdom, whereas the Labour party wishes to increase such differentiation and to pay farmers and others in the southern European states money that will come from the very low incomes of British farmers. That is the difference--the Conservatives support this country.
Mr. Maclean : A Community directive setting minimum standards for the welfare of veal calves was agreed by majority vote at the October Agriculture Council. In our view this directive does not properly tackle the cruelty of the veal crate and we voted against it. British standards for veal production will not, however, be reduced and consumers can be sure that if they buy British veal it will have been humanely produced.
Mr. Mullin : I welcome the fact that we voted against it, but this is one area in which a stand against the EC would enjoy the support of people of all political persuasions in this country. A ban on the import of veal from countries that produce it by a method banned here would constitute such a stand. Failing that, should we put the grand EC official who is in charge of such policies--Mr. Legras--in a veal crate for a few weeks and see whether he changes his mind after that?
Column 442that other nations were not of a similar mind, we voted against the directive. As the hon. Gentleman knows, our mutual friend Mr. Legras does not seem to take kindly to the breaking of Community law or the treaty. We cannot unilaterally break the law in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests, but we can mobilise consumer opinion. No inhumanely produced veal need be eaten in this country if consumers say that they do not want to touch the filthy stuff.
Mr. Maclean : Yes, that is true. That was the subject of the correspondence from Mr. Legras when the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) tried to introduce his ten-minute Bill. The EC has made it clear that live animal exports and imports are a fundamental tenet of the treaty and that it is not up to any nation unilaterally to seek to restrict that trade.
That is why we shall insist on the toughest possible standards in the Community directive on the transport of animals, so that animals are moved across frontiers or within any country as safely and humanely as possible.
Mr. Morley : The Minister said that British consumers would not want to buy inhumanely produced veal if they had the choice. How do consumers know whether their veal was produced inhumanely abroad or humanely in this country? When will the Minister introduce proposals for proper labelling, so that consumers can choose food products that have been humanely produced? I assure him of our full support for action to stop the hypocrisy of exporting calves for veal production in other countries.
Mr. Maclean : If we are talking about hypocrisy, let me say that it would be hypocrisy to suggest that we have the powers unilaterally to introduce a labelling directive to discriminate against foreign veal. The hon. Gentleman is making the same point that his hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) made. All these matters have to be dealt with on a Europeanwide basis if we are to have a directive. Alternatively, it can be done by individual companies and by retailers. The British Government cannot order people to label inhumanely produced veal, but consumers can demand it, supermarkets can provide the labelling and the restaurant trade can do the same if it is so minded. It is consumer pressure that will bring about a change.
Mr. Bellingham : Is the Minister aware that a number of stud farms in my constituency, including two owned by Her Majesty the Queen, and also stud farms in general make a tremendous contribution to the rural economy?
Column 443That is valuable at a time when farming is in difficulties. Is he also aware that bloodstock is subject to a far higher rate of VAT than in this country in France or in Ireland? That is an extremely serious problem which is leading to a number of stud owners moving their horses abroad. Will he tell the House what he is doing about that and what discussions he is having with the Treasury?
Mr. Curry : My hon. Friend will know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Treasury, has taken the lead in the discussions. The Irish rate of VAT is safe because it was in place before the cut-off date in the Community. The French rate of VAT may be challenged and may have to rise. We cannot lower the rate of VAT under Community rules, but we can try to find a way to assist the industry. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Treasury, is conducting discussions with the industry on the basis of a proposal for a flat rate agricultural tax which would replace the 17.5 per cent. VAT. The discussions are close to a conclusion and I understand that my hon. Friend will shortly be writing to the industry to clear up some of the remaining points, which will isolate the relatively few issues to be settled.
Sir Patrick Duffy : Is the Minister aware that feeling within the industry and the related sales industry is that if the VAT gap between this country and Ireland and between this country and France is not narrowed significantly we could lose a considerable part of our breeding industry and our entire sales industry, which are the most prestigious in the world? Although the recent approaches to the Treasury and the manner of their reception have been much appreciated, there is a feeling that little may yet be done to prevent the most serious disruption of breeding and horse sales in this country.
Mr. Curry : I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern. He knows that we cannot reduce the VAT rate as a solution, but he also knows that we can take measures that would have a similar effect in helping the industry. A meeting a week ago today between officials and the industry got to grips with some of the remaining problems. As a result of that, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Treasury, will write to the industry shortly. That should clear the way for what may be the final round of discussions which, I hope, can reach an agreement to achieve a measure that is equivalent to a reduction in VAT, within the Community rules which permit it.
Column 444throwing yet more money into a system which has not been reformed. As the intervention system remains entirely in place, and as the Community has not decided to try to make savings by reforming the system to make it less attractive, it seemed to us to be the wrong way to tackle the problem. There are structural difficulties and the Council of Ministers has come up with a typical measure--just finding a few extra bob to see whether it will solve the problem. We are discussing the result of that Council with a view to taking our own decision.
Mr. Edwards : Many beef farmers in my constituency of Monmouth are deeply anxious about the impact of the MacSharry proposals. Their farms are generally too large to get the benefits of the MacSharry proposals, but they do not get the benefit of the less-favoured area payments. May I invite the Minister to come to Monmouth to discuss those problems with the farmers there, which will give him the opportunity to assure them that he is seeking to protect their interests?
Mr. Curry : My right hon. Friend has made that point personally to farmers of Monmouth. The hon. Gentleman knows that our doors are always open to members of the farming or fishing communities who have problems and that we are active around the countryside. The hon. Gentleman can be absolutely certain that we agree that the measures proposed by Mr. MacSharry are to the detriment of his farmers and farmers in every corner of the United Kingdom.
Mr. Knapman : Does my hon. Friend accept that the intervention scheme is a uniquely silly way of buying a first-class article, storing it for months on end, and then dumping it back on the market as a third-class article? Will he please reconsider the scheme as soon as possible?
Mr. Curry : As my hon. Friend knows, our fundamental position on reform is that the intervention system must be made a great deal less attractive. It was designed as a safety net, but in many respects it has now become a high wire for farmers. We should move to a system under which the specialist producer can be rewarded for producing an increasingly better carcase and an increasingly improved quality of meat, which will find a world market. If intervention remains, it should be reduced to the original concept of a safety net for use in extreme emergencies.
Mr. Barnes : Is the Minister aware that since he was first appointed to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 1985 there has been a £28 billion food deficit, which amounts to £15 million per year or £1,200 per household? Is that not a pretty inept performance?
Column 445and it was this Government who set out to do something about it. The hon. Gentleman may like to ask some of his right hon. and hon. Friends what they did about it. They did not even approach the matter. We are dealing with it as well as we can in the circumstances and are beginning to have some real effect. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will ask his constituents to remember that if they want to do something about that matter there is one answer--to buy the best food that there is, and that is British produced.
Mr. Sims : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the drinks industry enjoys a surplus mainly because the value of exports of Scotch whisky far exceeds the value of imports of wine? He will be aware that there are Commission proposals on harmonisation with a zero rate for wine but a substantially higher rate for spirits, which is bound to have an adverse effect on our trade balance. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will press for harmonisation based on alcoholic strength, or at least some mechanism for capping the rate on spirits?
Mr. Gummer : That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I can assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will not allow the European Community to roll over him--as would be the case if the Leader of the Opposition were in charge of the affairs of this country--but will be fighting hard for Britain's interests, and especially for the interests of the Scotch whisky industry.
Mr. Tony Banks : Why does this country import more champagne per head than any other country? Could it be that the people of this country are storing up champagne to celebrate the wondrous event of the Tories' being smashed at the next election?
Mr. Gummer : That is an entirely new version of the phrase, "champagne socialist". The hon. Gentleman does not set an example to others in the consumption of champagne, as I do not believe that he seeks such a tipple
Mr. Gummer : In that case, the hon. Gentleman sets an example and shows that in a free society people can decide what they want to drink. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman wants a society in which people are prevented from drinking what they want.
12. Sir Michael Shaw : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make it his policy to include environmental protection features to the hill livestock compensatory allowance scheme.
Mr. Gummer : My right hon. Friends and I are currently seeking the views of interested parties on a package of measures designed to enhance environmental aspects of our support for hill farming. We will study the views put to us carefully before drawing final conclusions.
Column 446the conservation bodies all gave us a list of the areas that they wanted included and, for the most part, we followed those lists in so far as they agreed with one another. The area to which my hon. Friend refers was not considered such a high priority as others. As a result of our decisions, we will now spend five times as much on the environmentally sensitive areas and they will cover three times more of the United Kingdom than previously--more than 12 per cent. of the land area of England. That is a remarkable achievement and I hope that we can build on it in the future.