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Lord Stanley of Alderley: Before the noble Lord sits down and my noble friend replies, although I may have misunderstood him, the noble Lord said that the Government would be entitled to take other countries to court if there were subsidised produce coming in from
Lord Carter: The noble Lord is correct in saying that if the Government detect that there has been unfair competition they can ask the Commission to deal with it. I think that is correct, but I am sure that the Minister has the answer.
Lady Carnegy of Lour: Before the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, sits down, may I ask him this question: when he asked the Government whether they would support the development council which the industry plans to set up, did he mean financially? Did he mean that they would put taxpayers' money in or simply that they would give other forms of support?
Lord Carter: I suppose that we, on this side of the House, have to get used to answering questions from the Back Benches on the other side. No, I meant just the principle of a potato development council. On the point of being accountable to levy payers and not to the Government, under the terms of the development council, the council, under the rules of the 1947 Act, would be accountable to those who paid the levy.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Perth, rather strayed from the subject at hand to that of brown rot, but since he had given good notice of his intent I would, with the leave of the House, take the opportunity to discuss that disease at length at the end of my reply. I should now like to say how sad I am that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, seems to have fallen victim to it. Gordon Brown rot is a very saddening condition; it reduces what should have been a crisp and weighty speech to something which was astringent but without much substance. I am sure the whole House wishes the noble Lord a speedy recovery.
As my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour said, the dire prognostications of ruin if the potato marketing scheme ended have proved to be wrong. Looking back at the potato marketing scheme, it is clear that it was a burden on enterprising growers who wanted to expand; it reduced the potential for investment and employment growth in the growing and processing industries, and it cost the consumer dear in the form of higher prices. We will all be well rid of it.
Many noble Lords raised the question of the linkage of the revocation of our potato marketing scheme with agreement on the CAP regime for potatoes. The Government are well aware of the widespread concern within the industry that subsidies by other EC states will harm our potato growers. We certainly agree that such national aids are highly undesirable, which is why we have argued forcefully--and will continue to argue forcefully--that a lightweight EU regime for potatoes should be introduced as soon as possible in order to bring potatoes within the competition rules of the Treaty of Rome. The UK has consistently supported the Commission's proposals for just such a regime, but we
There was a moment last Saturday when I thought we were 95 per cent. of the way to getting a draw. I suspect that my noble friend and I both under-estimated the French; we were certainly both wrong. But the lack of a regime is no reason for delaying our own progress towards a free market.
I would make four points. First, we see much disadvantage in delaying a most worthwhile change in the UK system. The industry has been in limbo for a number of years and further delay and uncertainty can do nothing but harm. Indeed, the Potato Marketing Board itself has been pressing forward with commendable speed towards the free market, and it would be a tragedy if we were to jeopardise that process.
Thirdly, these aids have no direct effect on our growers. Indeed, both intervention and the sort of storage aids which form the bulk of these measures tend to maintain higher prices in the local market than would otherwise be the case, if anything making exports by our growers easier. One of the main reasons for bringing our scheme to an end was that by the use of intervention it did indeed keep prices high, thus sucking in imports, notably from Holland.
The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, and the noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Stanley of Alderley, asked whether the Government would produce a report before July 1997 as to the conditions that were then existing. I am unable to promise or offer hope of such a report, but I will draw the request to the attention of my honourable friends responsible.
Something which has not been mentioned is the enormous advantage which our potato producers have because they are farming in a Britain run by the Conservative Party. That gives them enormous benefits in terms of employment costs and in other aspects.
Some play was made of the words of my right honourable friend Mr. Gummer in another place when the Agriculture Act was going through that House. The quotations have been somewhat selective. If I may be allowed my own quotation from what he said I would cite the last remark that he made on the subject which, while also selective, represents the summing up of his views and the situation. He said:
The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, raised the question of appointments to the successor body. Perhaps I may say at this stage that we support the proposals. We believe that the Potato Marketing Board and the growers are heading in the right direction, although I do not wish to comment at this stage on the detail.
The successor body would be set up under the Industrial Organisation and Development Act 1947. That stipulates the categories of members who must be appointed to a development council. The order setting up a development council will specify the number of persons from each category to be appointed. As I understand it, the industry has already agreed on the proposed membership, which will give the growers, as the major levy payers, a majority. I therefore see no problems arising over representation.
The Act also stipulates that membership must be by ministerial appointment. There is therefore no scope for direct elections to the council. However, successive Ministers have given undertakings that recommendations by industry bodies as to membership will be taken very much into account in making appointments. Since future appointments will, following the Nolan Report, have to be approved by the Commissioner for Appointments, there is clearly no way in which it can be guaranteed that any particular nominee will be appointed.
The noble Lord, Lord Carter, raised with me the question of whether we had powers under the 1947 Act to permit the new development council, or whatever it may be, to do all that it is wished it should do. I believe that we do, but I do not wish to detain the House with the details and I shall write to the noble Lord on that subject.
Perhaps I may now turn to brown rot. Brown rot is caused by a bacterium--Pseudomonas solanacearum--which is widely distributed in tropical and warm temperate regions of the globe. It and its close cousins are responsible for a wide range of plant diseases which often pose a serious threat to crops, and may in severe cases limit an infected region's ability to grow potatoes and other vulnerable crops. Fortunately for us, northern Europe is generally too cold to allow the bacterium to flourish. However, it can nevertheless take hold (as happened in Holland last year) if growers and governments are not on their guard.
Without banning potato imports entirely, we cannot provide a complete assurance that the bacterium will not get into the UK. What we can give is an absolute assurance that the Government will continue to operate the best possible proportionate safeguards to protect our industry. The Government have established a screening programme, at no cost to the industry, to test all stocks of seed potatoes imported from the Netherlands. The Dutch, too, are testing all seed potatoes before export, so we have a belt and braces policy. No sampling procedure can offer a 100 per cent. detection rate. However, our combined testing protocols provide a strong safeguard which I know our growers value very highly. The Government acted quickly, in the light of the outbreaks in Holland, to require all imports of Dutch potatoes to be notified in advance so that our monitoring arrangements could be applied effectively.
What we are doing, therefore, is to act against the risk of a serious outbreak by rigorous checking of imports, by controls on potato processing waste, and by keeping a close eye on domestically produced potatoes.
As noble Lords will know, we have already seen one case of the disease, in a potato crop in 1992, and we have detected the bacterium in riverside plants of woody nightshade, which it can also infect. Our experience of the one UK outbreak so far, and of similar scattered outbreaks overseas, leads us to believe that if future outbreaks occur--for which we should and must prepare--we shall be able to deal with them effectively by quarantine arrangements for infected farms. Further discussions will be taking place in the European Community to establish common rules to apply in such cases.
The noble Earl, Lord Perth, raised in particular the case of the Scottish seed potato industry. Scotland and some other areas in the United Kingdom are already protected regions. That is an EU term which means that only high grade seed may be imported. It is not a guarantee against the importation of infected potatoes, and it offers no powers of quarantine or import prohibition. However, I can, I hope, give the noble Earl considerable comfort.
The present position in Scotland is that last year only five consignments of seed potatoes were imported from Holland. This year we have been active in discouraging imports, and no such imports have yet been made. We shall work closely with the Scottish industry, which is well aware of the dangers of brown rot, to ensure as best we can that no problem arises in future and that Scotland's reputation is preserved untarnished.
There are a whole range of crop diseases and pests that have the potential to invade the UK. We have the duty to take proportionate measures to protect ourselves against them. What those measures should be will vary from case to case and from time to time. We should not go over the top and ban imports when that is not justified. We should do to others as we expect them to do to us.
It is our judgment that the action we are taking, together with that taken by the Dutch, the EU and others, will lead to the current Dutch outbreak being kept under control. However, we shall remain constantly on the lookout for any evidence of the disease spreading and, if we find it, we shall not hesitate to introduce whatever measures are appropriate to protect our growers.