By Order )
By Order )
Authorities Act 1990) (Amendment) Bill ( By Order )
By Order )
Lords ] ( By Order )
Orders for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second time on Thursday 3 March.
Non-Domestic Rating Act 1994.
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Gillian Shephard) : We have held extensive and constructive consultations with all relevant interests on tenancy law reform. We are now finalising details so as to be ready to introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time is available.
Mr. Moss : Is not the joint industry agreement a major breakthrough which removes any final obstacles to the introduction of legislation that will dramatically increase opportunities for new entrants into farming ?
Mrs. Shephard : My hon. Friend is right to say that reform is very much needed to increase lettings and opportunities for new entrants. It was tremendously good news that last December all the parties concerned--the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association, the Tenant Farmers Association and the
Column 416Young Farmers--reached agreement on the reform package. That shows that they all appreciate the urgent need for it.
Mr. Llwyd : Given that the abolition of the wages council was meant to introduce some flexibility into the formulae and resulted in people being paid less than before, is not it another case of the Government looking after their own, as young tenants will be offered 12 or 18-month tenancies ? What reception does the Minister think a young entrant into the industry armed with an 18-month tenancy will get at a bank ?
Mrs. Shephard : The hon. Gentleman is very much prejudging the issue. Clearly, landlords and tenants will reach the agreements that they mutually need. As for his comment about the banks, there is no evidence that banks will take that attitude. Landlords will offer a range of tenancy agreements--some will be long, some will be short and some will be medium- term. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Young Farmers support the measure.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jack) : I have already visited the Birmingham wholesalemarket-- on 21 January--as part of my project to help to strengthen the horticulture industry.
Mr. Hawkins : When my hon. Friend undertakes his next visit, will he take the opportunity to see the splendid range of produce produced in my constituency and in his next door ? Will he join me in welcoming the fact that, as a result of the North Western electricity board's announcement yesterday that it is cutting prices for horticulturists, thus ensuring that VAT on fuel is completely negated before it comes into force, the Government's policies seem to be working to the advantage of those in our constituencies ?
Mr. Jack : I thank my hon. Friend for introducing a local note into his question. I am delighted by the news about NORWEB. Lower electricity prices are important to many horticulturists for their plant propagating activities. With that additional facility available, I am sure that his point about the quality of produce will be well met. The study that I am undertaking is designed to ensure the best possible display for that excellent produce.
Mr. Jack : Clearly, the hon. Gentleman has not visited the same markets as I have. I have found a universal welcome for the Government's approach to deregulation, not only in horticulture or markets, but throughout agriculture, where people can see that we genuinely have their interests at heart in reducing paperwork and improving systems.
Mr. Ottaway : I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, which will be warmly welcomed in Croydon. Will she please confirm the contribution that is made to British exports by the British food industry and give a warm welcome to the work that is done in that respect by the organisation Food From Britain ?
Mrs. Shephard : It is a pleasure to pay tribute to the work of Food From Britain, which is now focusing on what it does best--the promotion of exports. Last month, I launched Continental Challenge, which was a conference--well-attended--for continental retailers and our producers. The follow-up work from that conference will be taken forward by Food From Britain with regional events, some of which may be in Croydon, and other work directly with producers. Our food industry is already doing well in exporting. For example, exports of lamb have increased by 76 per cent. over the past three years. We are now the second largest manufacturer in Europe of mozzarella cheese and are poised to export that also. There are many other successes of which to speak.
Mrs. Shephard : I agree with the hon. Gentleman's latter point. The pig industry is going through a difficult time. We know that it is a cyclical industry, but the present trough--if I may put it that way--is pretty deep and difficult. The problem is oversupply, largely from the EC. What we are doing principally is ensuring that if any other EC state is providing illegal state aid to its pig industries, it will be pursued by the Commission.
Mr. Lord : I am sure that my right hon. Friend will acknowledge the enormous part that is played by the British apple in the British food industry. I am sure that she will be aware also of the difficult conditions that the British apple industry now faces. If she has not already done so, I urge her to see a delegation from the apple producers of this country as quickly as possible to listen to all their problems, and to their solutions, which in many ways seem sensible.
Mrs. Shephard : My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that both I and my hon. Friend the Minister of State have met representatives of the apple industry, although we are always happy to receive more delegations. We are well aware of the difficulties that the industry has been facing because of low prices over the past two seasons. We need a reformed fruit and vegetable regime from the EC, for which we are pressing at the moment. We also need each and every person in Britain to eat just one more Cox's apple every week--it should not be a hardship--a practice which I can commend to the House.
Column 418of pork is extremely important, as I am sure that she will acknowledge. The problem is not only state subsidies in other member states but subsidised marketing and assistance with all forms of support in other states. I ask her to address her mind particularly to the differences between the animal welfare standards that we seek to achieve in this country, which are on a different time scale from those that are being sought in other member states.
Mrs. Shephard : Certainly. We must concentrate on state aids that can be proved to be illegal. That is the point. We have in our sights at the moment a particular state aid, helpfully announced by the French Government by press release last September. There can be little doubt about their intention. If the French Government are found to be state-aiding their pig industry illegally, they will be contributing directly to the difficulties of our producers. That must be stopped. I raised that question again with Commissioner Steichen this week. Work on that is proceeding. On animal welfare, the hon. Gentleman is right that our producers do not have a level playing field. I make no apology for that. I am glad that this country has a strong and well-developed animal welfare lobby. We must live with that concern, which is so strongly felt by British people. I believe also that humanely produced products can be more popular on the market.
Mr. Marland : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concern in the dairy industry about our lack of self-sufficiency in milk and about the threat of quota cuts ? That concern is now being compounded by anxiety over milk marketing ; that, in turn, gives rise to the fear that such action will lessen the supply of milk in the United Kingdom, increase prices and possibly lead to milk processors investing in plant abroad rather than in this country. That would reduce opportunities to produce British food and add value to it in this country, which would obviously have a detrimental effect on the whole agriculture industry.
Mrs. Shephard : I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the deregulation of the milk market is actually an incentive for processors to set up in this country. However, I regret the current delay in the setting up of Milk Marque as much as he does. It is a matter of great concern to both producers and processors and, of course, to 50 million consumers.
Mr. McFall : The Minister will appreciate the increasing frustration of British fishermen at what they see as the Government's wholly discriminatory policy and interpretation of the rules. The fact that the French fishermen, who took violent action, received £30 million in state aid from their Government only reinforces that frustration. When will the Minister live up to the promise that he made after the 2 December High Court ruling,
Column 419discuss the implications with both the EC Commissioner and the industry and come back to the House with an improved decommissioning scheme ?
Mr. Jack : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I was interested by the comments of the secretary of our own National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, who denounced the French Government's payment of aid. He said that it was not what the fishing industry required. He did not consider it to be the right way forward.
If the hon. Gentleman had been present at our last Question Time, he would have heard me report to the House that I had had a discussion with Commissioner Paleokrassas about those very matters. We are now embarking on discussions with the industry : one has already taken place north of the border with the Scottish federation, and another will take place early next month with the NFFO, when we shall discuss technical conservation and other measures to help us achieve our targets.
Mr. John Townend : Does my hon. Friend agree that a decommissioning scheme alone will not solve the problem of the shortage of fish and that it is now even more vital to agree technical measures, including net sizes ? Will my hon. Friend report to the House what progress is being made in discussions with the industry on such measures ?
Mr. Jack : My hon. Friend is right to point out that the way in which to achieve the multi-annual guidance programme capacity reduction target is to adopt such measures as licence aggregation. The fishing industry, both north and south of the border, has done a good deal of useful work in presenting proposals for technical conservation measures. I assure my hon. Friend that we will take those proposals seriously. As I said a moment ago, we shall be meeting fishermen's representatives early in March to discuss a possible way forward.
Mr. John D. Taylor : How many fishing vessels have been taken out as a result of the decommissioning scheme ? How many additional vessels have joined the British fleet during the same period ? As the Minister is now adopting a positive attitude to decommissioning schemes, will he consider a further expansion of the present scheme ?
Mr. Jack : On 21 September, I announced that 142 vessels had been successful. Of those, 137 have proceeded with decommissioning. I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman exactly how many new vessels have joined the fleet during that time. I should point out that, to complete the criteria for payment for decommissioning, a vessel must be so disabled--as the order puts it--that it cannot fish ; in other words, it must be dismantled. I am sorry, but I cannot at this moment tell the right hon. Gentleman precisely how many vessels have been dismantled.
Mr. Hicks : May I impress on my hon. Friend the urgent importance of introducing a programme based on technical conservation measures ? Is that not really the way forward ? Will my hon. Friend assure the House that there is no suggestion of returning to the draconian limitations of days at sea ?
Mr. Jack : The reduction in effort targets cannot all be achieved by technical conservation measures. We are at a very early stage in evaluating the worth of the package that the industry has put forward. Technical conservation causes some pain to fishermen because, effectively, it
Column 420means lower catch rates. My hon. Friend knows that our other efforts to reduce fishing capacity catch levels through days at sea are now the subject of a case in the European Court. We obviously await the outcome of that to assist us in our further thoughts for fishing policy.
Mr. Morley : Does the Minister agree that, no matter what the outcome of the case in the European Court, or his discussions on technical measures and efforts at limitation, decommissioning will always be a central part of any scheme to reduce capacity of our fishing fleet ? That being the case, will the Minister use the £750, 000 underspend of the first round of decommissioning to consider as quickly as possible those applicants who were not successful ? Secondly, will the Minister make it clear to the industry when fishermen can apply for the second round so that they can plan for the future, rather than being in abeyance, as they are at present, and racked by uncertainty ?
Mr. Jack : The hon. Gentleman will know from debates that we had in the House before Christmas that I certainly did not rule out decommissioning making its contribution towards effort reduction. He has asked me a number of parliamentary questions and sent me letters on the subject of the underspend. I hope that the assurances that I have given him in reply to those, showing that I see no good reason why that money not should not take its place in any successor schemes, will provide assurance on that subject.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked me about applications for future decommissioning. It was always going to be the case that we would want to consider the final outcome of the first tranche because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, we have sectoral targets for the multi-annual guidance programme and I want to ensure that in any future arrangements whatever resources we deploy in that area are deployed as effectively as possible.
5. Mr. Bennett : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if she will make a statement about how long she expects the restrictions on sale of sheep from lands contaminated by Chernobyl to last.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nicholas Soames) : More than 93 per cent. ofthe holdings originally under restriction have been derestricted and the remaining restrictions will be lifted as soon as possible, consistent only with the need to ensure the continued protection of the food chain.
Mr. Bennett : I welcome the fact that another series of farms was released from restrictions in January. Can the Minister assure us that those restrictions will not have to be reimposed and that the land is now perfectly safe ? Has the effect of the Chernobyl disaster on those areas had any long-term effect on the breeding ewes in the areas and has the Minister any idea, other than saying "as soon as possible", when the final restrictions will be removed ? Is he also satisfied that food products coming into Britain from other parts of Europe are being subjected to the same rigorous tests as those that have been applied in Britain as a result of Chernobyl ?
Column 421restriction, compared with 9,000 when the restrictions were introduced. The Government, as the hon. Gentleman knows, place the highest possible emphasis on ensuring the safety and quality of our food supplies. That is why we have such a prudent and thorough monitoring method. As to when the restrictions will end, the hon. Gentleman knows, because he takes a keen interest in the subject, that those areas have difficult land--poorly drained, peaty uplands--which lacks the minerals that could chemically immobilise the caesium. It is impossible for us to tell when they will be completely cured, but we continue to monitor in a prudent and thorough manner.
Mr. Garnier : I sympathise with the farmers affected by the restrictions, but does my hon. Friend agree that while those restrictions are in place it gives the public, at home and abroad, a better chance to taste Harborough sheepmeat ? While it is likely that the differential in price between sheepmeat on the hook and on the hoof will, in due course, diminish to extinction, while that differential exists will he do all that he can to enable Harborough sheep farmers to export live sheep without hindrance from those across the channel ?
Mr. Soames : My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is perfectly possible, provided that the rules are stuck to, for animals to be properly and humanely transported. We remain anxious to ensure that an equal regime is in place throughout the continent and I can assure my hon. Friend that I am fully aware that people on the continent prize Harborough sheep as much as we do here.
Mr. Martyn Jones : Although there have been restrictions on the sale of sheep in Chernobyl-affected areas since 1987 on human health grounds, there have been no restrictions on the sale of cattle from the Green Lane farm in Kelsall on animal health grounds. It is not good enough for the Minister to say that the bovine immuno-deficiency virus causes only a transient rise in temperature in the affected cattle when Black's Veterinary Dictionary suggests that it is a potentially very dangerous pathogen of cattle. What is he going to do to avoid the spread of the disease ?
Sir Peter Tapsell : In view of repeated reports of the steady deterioration in the condition of the huge number of nuclear warheads stored in the Ukraine and Russia, does my hon. Friend accept that the danger of future nuclear fallout in this country has to be kept very much in mind ? Does his Department have any scheme ready to tell farmers what to do if there is a recurrence of anything of the nature of Chernobyl ? For instance, may I put it to him that when I recently
Mr. Soames : The House will be anxious to know what my hon. Friend saw in Korea. He makes an important point about nuclear accidents of this type. It is plain that we have learnt a great deal from Chernobyl. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has a fully equipped and extremely sophisticated emergency response headquarters and a plan of action in the event of any such unfortunate recurrence. I assure my hon. Friend that we will be fully prepared for almost any eventuality.
Mr. Barry Jones : Will the Minister acknowledge just how difficult it is to eke out a living on the uplands, especially in Wales ? Will he also acknowledge that it is very difficult for those who run their sheep on Chernobyl-affected pasture to make a living and that many of us believe that the Government's regime for upland areas is neither as imaginative nor as generous as it should be ? Will he take action ?
Mr. Soames : It has been my experience that every Government scheme is deemed by the Opposition to be neither imaginative nor generous. The scheme to which the hon. Gentleman referred has stood the test of time and served farmers extremely well. Help given to the farmers centres on mark and release arrangements which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, enable controls to be applied with the minimum disruption to normal farming practices, and the associated compensation payments mitigate the adverse economic effects. He should be quite satisfied with that.
6. Mr. Harris : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if she will ask the agricultural attache s at British embassies to report on the level of compliance in each member state of European Union agricultural and animal welfare regulations and obligations.
Mr. Harris : Is my hon. Friend aware that, following my visits to our embassies in member states, I am far from convinced that our diplomats, especially the agricultural attache s, are on the ball in monitoring what is happening--or what is not happening--in the member states ? For example, several questions have today been asked about non-compliance and national aid. What specific information does my hon. Friend receive ? Will he give some posts a rocket in order to ensure that Ministers are well informed, because many countries are getting away with murder in terms of Common Market regulations ?
Mr. Soames : As my hon. Friend knows, Ministers are always extremely well informed on those matters. I shall ensure that his concerns are passed to the administration. May I make it clear to my hon. Friend that we always find that, in dealings with the agricultural attache s, we are able to find out all the information that we need. However, it is true that enforcement is a matter of great concern to
Column 423everyone in the country and a level playing field is something for which we all seek to strive and I will ensure that his remarks are passed on.
Mr. Lewis : Is the Minister aware that cruelty to animals being exported is now endemic and that it is a growing problem ? Is not that a case for which Ministers should introduce the doctrine of subsidiarity ?
Mr. Soames : No. We believe that animal welfare is not a suitable subject for subsidiarity. It is a pan-European problem and it will not make anyone in the country feel any better if animals are badly treated in Spain when they are well treated in Britain. We want to see a properly enforced regime for animal welfare across Europe, in which people will have complete confidence that animals will be safely and properly transported in a humane manner.
Mr. Soames : That is not the sort of penetrating question that I expect from my hon. Friend. The fact--[ Interruption. ] The fact is that in this country we have a traditionally high standard of compliance and high standards in the way in which we apply the rules in our public life. It is not quite the point for us to always consider that everything is done better here than elsewhere. What matters is that enforcement of the rules must be carried out across Europe on an absolutely equal basis. That is the aim of Her Majesty's Government.
Mr. Banks : Is the Minister aware that at the end of the past war, the health of the nation improved mainly because of the large consumption of home-grown British vegetables ? It is well known that the Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), is a self-confessed and practising carnivore. Would not it be better if, instead of having him as a bad example of excessive meat eating, we had a Government campaign to promote the health-giving properties of British vegetables ? By that I do not mean the vegetables sitting on the Conservative Benches.
Mr. Jack : If that is the best we can do for dig for victory, God help us. However, I have some good news for the hon. Gentleman. In May, the Health Education Authority is to conduct a campaign to boost the consumption of, among other things, home-produced vegetables. That campaign is to be supported by such notables as sergeant Strawberry and captain Carrot. As the hon. Gentleman remains one of the self-professed socialists on the Opposition Benches, I suggest that he volunteers as private Beetroot, because he is red all the way through.
Mr. Pickles : Will my hon. Friend bear in mind the plight of lettuce growers and their concern over the proposed regulations on nitrate ? I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he has done, but is he in a position to reassure my constituents, whose jobs are at stake because of the regulation on the nitrate levels of lettuce ? How far has he got with the Commission ?
Mr. Jack : I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is a perfect advertisement for the lettuce growers' product. May I assure him that, at the December Agriculture Council, my right hon. Friend the Minister raised the important point of nitrate levels and their application at different times of the season and the way in which they affect British growers. Current work is considering a further new regime and I shall tell my hon. Friend of the outcome of those discussions.
Mrs. Gillian Shephard : I refer the hon. Member to the answer that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on 21 January, Official Report, column 849 .
Mr. Grocott : Is the Minister aware that that is a pretty thin answer to a question about a policy which the Prime Minister tells us is to permeate the work of all Departments ? I can give that answer only one mark for technical merit. Would it not be far better if the Minister came clean with the House and admitted that she has not a clue what relevance the "back to basics" policy has for her Department because, like everyone else in the country, she has not a clue what "back to basics" means ? Is it not worth saying, for once, that that was a meaningless answer to a meaningless question about a meaningless policy ?
Mrs. Shephard : I understand that the hon. Gentleman recently regretted that there was not much farming interest in his constituency. However, I should have thought that even he should know that farming and the production of good food are about as basic as one can get. If he has difficulty with the concept, I know of quite a few farmers who would like to put him right.
Mr. Gallie : Does my right hon. Friend agree that getting back to basics in the food market will mean that food can compete on equal terms in whatever market, especially in Europe ? Does she also agree that the United Kingdom salmon farming industry is now under threat because of dumping from Norway, and can she advise what steps can be taken ?
Mrs. Shephard : I must say that I rather agree with my hon. Friend. He will, of course, welcome the discussion that the Minister of State, Scottish Office is having with the Norwegian Fisheries Minister and he will also wish to support that Minister's argument that the key to the long-term solution lies through co-operation and agreement between producers. I am sure that he will strongly urge the Scottish salmon producers to meet their Norwegian counterparts as soon as possible to get the process of dealing with the industry's problems under way.
Dr. Strang : Is the Minister aware that there is nothing more basic than the living standards of farm workers and their families ? Now that the consultation exercise has demonstrated such overwhelming support for the Agricultural wages board, and the farmers as well as the farm workers have come out in support of it, is it not clear than any move to abolish or weaken the board could be motivated only by political dogma ? When will the Minister remove that threat from farm workers and their families ?
Mrs. Shephard : We have had many representations about the future of the Agricultural wages board, the majority of which have been favour of its retention. During last month's agriculture questions, I said that I would meet representatives of the Transport and General Workers Union, and I have now done that. I am considering the matter and I hope to make an announcement before Easter.
Mrs. Gillian Shephard : We are giving help and encouragement to our very successful food producers, processors and manufacturers to help them to meet the needs of customers in the United Kingdom and abroad.
Mr. Pawsey : I thank my right hon. Friend for that typically helpful reply. Does she agree that fresh British food is among the best in the world, and that it would do much for the health and prosperity of the British people if we could persuade more British consumers to buy home- grown produce ?
Mrs. Shephard : Yes, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that British produce is among the best in the world. Our British retailers are now increasingly labelling British food with its place of origin, which obviously helps to persuade the British consumer to buy British. Ultimately, however, the consumer has the right to go for quality, and it is quality which we should aim for in promoting British food.
Mr. Wilson : Is the Minister aware that farmed salmon is one British food which could soon no longer be with us unless the Government act in Europe ? Is she aware of the report by Ernst and Young--a firm of consultants that the Tory party tends to hire and whose views it normally accepts--establishing that £300 million worth of illegal subsidy has been given by the Norwegian Government to their salmon farming industry over the past four years ?
Why have the Government not established those facts and why do they now refuse to act on them ? Does the Minister realise that 6,000 jobs and an enormous amount of public investment is at stake unless the Government take seriously the problems of the salmon farming industry and put it at the top of their priority list in Brussels ?
Mrs. Shephard : I am very well aware of the importance of the salmon farming industry in Scotland. I am also aware of the amount of investment that has been put in and the number of jobs involved. The hon. Gentleman will understand that the decision on the type of safeguard action to take against alleged dumping and the
Column 426level of, say, minimum import prices are matters for the Commission. I remind the hon. Gentleman of the reply that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) a moment ago when I said that these matters were being firmly taken forward by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scottish Office.