Previous Section Home Page

Column 796

Members' speeches. We are all guilty of that. It seldom adds much to the debate or to the quality of the argument. We could all impose a greater self-discipline there.

Thirdly, there is the tedious repetition of arguments. Theoretically, this is against the rules of order, but it is seldom that anyone is pulled up for tedious repetition. We are all guilty of it and we should all do it less frequently. We are all guilty of introducing, ad nauseam, fallacies and assumptions that cannot be sustained.

Fourthly, there is the question of voting. Here lies the greatest possible scope. We do not practise what I believe is widely practised now in all other managerial systems outside and possibly even inside politics. That is known as management by exception. The vote that matters is that which is decided by the electorate once every four to five years. That is the vote that makes the greatest impact on the nation and its affairs. Very occasionally, and particularly if the balance between the governing party and the Opposition is small, a vote is challenged or altered by a profound disagreement within the Government or the Opposition. Occasionally, there is such a thing as a procedural ambush. That is increasingly rare, especially when the Government have a substantial majority. It can be challenged by accidental absence, for example, by a significant number of Members being delayed on a plane from Scotland to London.

However, in my humble judgment, the nation is not interested in those changes, except when Governments are threatened or defeated ; that is when the parliamentary balance no longer reflects the general election ballot. Those are the divisions in which the nation is really interested. If we alter our procedures in such a way as to give the nation what it wants, which is a full and proper report on those occasions, we can save ourselves an enormous amount of time on many of the other Divisions that take place here. By and large, the media are uninterested in whether our majority is 150, 100 or 50. The evidence of this is that those Divisions are seldom reported, apart from the particular examples that I have mentioned.

We have no management by exception when we should have such management. We assume a Government majority, but we could allow far more efficient procedures to reveal variations rather than reassert meaningless totals. There are many ways of achieving that and I shall simply mention two of them. First, there are the non-electronic methods. There is no need, for example, on a second Division late at night to troop through the Division Lobbies. I believe that your discretion, Mr. Speaker, and direction to record the vote of minor parties would have achieved every objective except that of wasting time.

Where there are several Divisions and we are bound to record identical votes, we can easily amalgamate them, without prejudice to anyone, least of all the Opposition. That applies to amendments, substantive motions and Third Readings where there may be three votes one after another. We all know that, plus or minus two or three votes, the identical Division will be recorded, and that we will have wasted 50 minutes of the House's precious time, which, as the Procedure Committee admits, we need for other purposes.

Finally, I must at least mention the fact that we largely ignore the significant potential of electronic devices. It now seems possible for any hon. Member to leave a completely secure coded vote in the system, which can be withdrawn

Column 797

immediately on demand or cancelled by telephone. That technical possibility may seem far-fetched, but we should consider the contribution that it could make.

Late sittings have been much discussed. The House should consider the 10 o'clock rule in a fundamental way. The Procedure Committee suggested that hon. Members do not often refer to that or vote against it, but I regard that argument as specious. We do not vote against the suspension of the 10 o'clock rule for the simple reason that we know that the Government would win every Division on that type of vote. It is rather futile as the Government would always outvote us.

I very much agree with the Study of Parliament Group's trenchant comment that

"proceedings in the chamber should comprise those on which Members are most anxious to exercise their rights to attend, speak and vote."

The group concludes that

"the chamber could be spared even more secondary legislation, most debates on European Community Documents and, more significantly, the remaining stages of much legislation and more Second Readings. It could therefore become the rule that business such as secondary legislation and EC Documents would always be dealt with in Committee unless specifically brought to the Floor of the House by government, by opposition parties on an Opposition Day or by backbenchers on a Private Members' day."

I heartily commend that conclusion to the House.

9.35 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) : Regardless of the political colour of the Government, our democracy is in a crisis, both within this place and outside. That is seen to be so by many outside the House because of a number of actions that the Government are taking. The same applies to those who are within the House. Throughout our society we see the overwhelming and overbearing influence that is being brought to bear both inside and outside the House. The procedures of the House, which we are now debating, are being used in a way that reflects the contempt that Governments in general, but this one in particular, hold for what is nominally the legislature. There has been no serious attempt to reform the way in which this place works. That is because basically it works to the advantage of this Government, perhaps more than it has worked to the advantage of any Government in the past. When television cameras come into the Chamber and viewers see the way in which the Government manipulate Parliament, there will be tremendous revulsion. The same can be said of any party which forms a Government, but the Conservative party and the present Government have demonstrated so clearly the problems that a Parliament without power faces when it is faced with an Executive that exercises no restraint.

There is a great deal more that the Opposition could do to highlight the problems and to produce a serious alternative to the way in which our democracy currently does not work. Unfortunately, there are two camps within the Opposition. There are those who say, "We'll give them some stick when we get in next time. We don't want any changes because we can be just as authoritarian. We can abuse our democracy in equal measure." I do not agree with that view. Secondly, there are those who feel that, if we were to make serious changes to our processes and procedures, their little niche, speciality or maverick ability

Column 798

in this, that or the other area would fall prey to a wider democracy. Both camps are wrong. I hope that tonight's debate will cause one or two of their members to think afresh about the wider values that we Socialists should promote.

We must examine the role of the House of Commons in a democracy. How do we expect the House to move forward so that it can play a serious role in our democracy? How can it extend its ability to hold Government to account? If there ever was a golden age, how can we re-invent the ability to scrutinise government? No outsider, no impartial judge, would say that we in this place effectively hold our Government to account. That can be said of Governments of whatever political colour.

Perhaps we need to go far further than the reforms proposed by the Procedure Committee in the many reports that are before us. We should move on to consider the separation of powers, a written constitution, a Bill of Rights and the wholesale reform of the judiciary before we can seriously tackle the inability of this place to hold the Government to account. That will have to wait for another debate and another day.

One of the several problems that has emerged during the debate is that a number of hon. Members have concentrated their sudden desire for procedural reform to make Parliament effective on one bad experience that they personally underwent during consideration of the Abortion (Amendment) Bill 1987. I do not believe that they do the cause of parliamentary reform any good whatsoever by suddenly discovering that there are problems with the private Member's Bill procedure and suddenly griping that there have been difficulties.

Mr. Beith : In my party, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), who intervened earlier, has argued for the past 10 or 15 years, long before his Bill came before the House, that there should be time for private Members' Bills to reach a conclusion.

Mr. Allen : I do not know about individual cases, but there certainly has not been a massive groundswell on those issues over many years. People have suddenly discovered it because of the issue that was raised last year.

Like every other debate on a Select Committee report--there have been only five on substantive motions since 1979, even though there have been almost 400 reports--after tonight's debate there will be no vote. This has merely been a talking shop exercise. If the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, will allow me, I suggest that it may be an error in the Procedure Committee reports that they contain no proposal that a specified number of Committee reports should, as of right, come back to the Floor of the House for a decision. Under such a system, a number of the hon. Gentleman's recommendations would have been voted upon. Until we link the system of Select Committees to the Floor of the House, those Committees will be divorced from real accountability and scrutiny by the Government.

Mr. Tony Banks : Why only a proportion? If the House sets up a Committee to consider something, surely that presupposes that the Committee should come back with proposals and the House should vote on them. Otherwise, what is the point of setting up the Committees in the first place?

Column 799

Mr. Allen : My hon. Friend expresses his own view, and I do not wish to comment on his remarks.

Parliament is letting down democracy, as it is not fulfilling its role. Perhaps I come to this debate with some naivety as I am a new Member. However, I hope that that also means that I bring a fresher eye to this problem. I hope also that my commitment to this issue is in no doubt. It is something of a chore, I may tell the Leader of the House, to have to go to the Table Office every day to table my motions on the Order Paper, despite the welcome that I always get there. However, I have spent a year tabling my motions in an attempt, as Conservative Members said earlier, to bring this issue to the fore and get, as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said, a number of hon. Members interested in this area. This is not an arcane and esoteric area. It is an area of parliamentary reform which is vital to the ability of our democracy to take decisions effectively, to inform people outside, and, above all, to hold the Government to account.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Perhaps it is rather surprising that the hon. Gentleman and I, as new Members with a fresh view, share the opinion of the Privy Councillors who have spoken this evening and believe that a change in the procedure is long overdue. Surely it must be right that the Government should find time to bring forward as soon as possible substantive proposals that we can vote on to change the procedure.

Mr. Allen : The Government will not find time to change the House, given that the House serves the Government's purpose. Until the House reasserts its independence from Government, I see no prospect of these matters being brought to a decision. None the less, they must be brought to the attention of hon. Members. I have continually tabled motions which appear as remaining orders of the day. Perhaps one day Mr. Speaker will surprise me by selecting one. I hope that that happens on a day when I am in attendance--as I usually am. Please do not surprise me, Mr. Speaker, by selecting one on an odd day when I am not here.

I have proposed that speeches in all debates should be limited to 10 minutes ; that is self-explanatory. They should be timed by another clock in the Chamber that can be stopped so that interventions are not taken out of the 10 minutes. That would encourage debate as hon. Members would be very willing to give way and pursue points knowing that they would not lose any time out of their 10 minutes.

The point that all hon. Members should be treated equally in debate has been touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell- Savours). I fully endorse his proposals about Privy Councillors. A list of speakers should be available before each debate so that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) would not have to come back half- expecting to be called to speak tonight. He would have been able to phone in and find out, and listen at leisure when he arrived.

Timetables should be introduced for all Bills. The theory of timetables is that the Government get their Bill at the end of the day, and they know the day on which that Bill will come out of Committee. But in Committee the timetabling of the Bill should be the possession of the Opposition, and they should choose the areas to be scrutinised in greatest depth.

Column 800

A number of hon. Members have mentioned dates of sittings. Special Standing Committees are becoming increasingly important. Given the cursory examination that Bills receive, there should be a period of one month between First and Second Reading so that there can be examination outside of the clauses of the Bill.

Finally, Committees of the House should be allowed to come to the Floor of the House by right to present at least one report each year so that there is a connection between the Committee system and the Floor of the House. The Leader of the House kindly raised the question of hours, so I shall not spend any time on that. Tonight's debate has been helpful, but it would be far more helpful if the Leader of the House agreed that decisions as well as speeches should be forthcoming.

9.47 pm

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) : I was hoping that at least one novelty would be proposed tonight. I would suggest the installation of polygraph lie detectors in both Dispatch Boxes. That would be to the advantage of the public and Back Benchers and to the disadvantage of Front Benchers on both sides. However, no such novelties have been proposed today.

If we consider what are normally regarded as the proper functions of a Parliament, we are not too bad at the redress of individual grievances ; but everyone has to accept that we are not too smart at scrutinising the activities of the Executive, we are absolutely deplorable at controlling Government expenditure, and we have not been too good at producing understandable, workable laws. During the past two or three years, it has not been the practitioners in the field who are unable to understand the law. In view of the successful court actions against the Government, particularly in local government finance and social security, it is clear that some of the Ministers who introduced the Bills did not understand them and broke the law fairly soon after they were enacted. In those circumstances, I do not think that we are doing too well in the production of understandable law.

One aspect of Parliament that tends to be ignored--the Select Committee, at least in some ways, tended to set it to one side--is our function as a place for free expression of opinion, where people are allowed to express their views and conduct campaigns within a political arena. I hope that no one will take offence when I say that I feel that the Select Committee has taken rather a managerial approach to this place, and in some sense there has been a lot of effort to depoliticise it, as if one of the Committee's objects was the smooth operation of the House. That is not always the case. I do not want to talk about short speeches, other than to say that you, Mr. Speaker, should be empowered to impose a time limit from 6 pm to 9 pm, if you so wished, rather than from 6 pm to 8 pm or from 7 pm to 9 pm. That would definitely be an advantage.

The Select Committee made proposals for allocating time to Government Bills in Committee. In fact, not many Bills end up being guillotined--although, because of the sanguinary activities of the Leader of the House, during the last Session more Bills were guillotined than in any other Session in the history of Parliament. However, the number was still only six, so we are not reduced to guillotining Bills too frequently. Most Bills go through Committee as both sides expect ; only the most

Column 801

controversial of Bills do not. I am doubtful about the idea that a Committee should self-guillotine, fairly quietly and without much publicity. It is generally to the advantage of the Opposition to insist that if the Government want very controversial measures to go through quickly, at some point in the proceedings they must come to the Floor of the House and face adverse publicity.

Last Session we forced the Government to guillotine the Social Security Bill ; the result was 140 column inches of newspaper coverage, mostly unfavourable to the Government. That was useful and worth while. It is a stick with which all Oppositions should be able to beat Governments, and to do so in public rather than reaching agreement upstairs.

The Select Committee recommended changes in the rules governing debates on statutory instruments. What strikes me as peculiar is that, four or five years after a Bill has been passed, no one has the faintest idea why it was thought to need the affirmative procedure. The belief is that the affirmative procedure applies to important matters and the negative procedure to less important matters. The fact is that what might appear to be important while a Bill is going through often turns out to be relatively trivial two or three years later.

The present rules for deciding whether statutory instruments should be dealt with on the Floor of the House or upstairs are probably better than the Select Committee's proposals. Much more important is the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) about the willingness of the House to allow important parts of legislation to be sloughed off into regulations when they should be on the face of the primary legislation. If we do not jib at putting such important matters into regulations rather than into primary legislation, the question whether they are dealt with on the Floor of the House or upstairs is trivial. I share the doubts of the Leader of the House about the wisdom of taking a substantial chunk of prime time at 3.30 pm for procedural wrangles about what should happen to particular statutory instruments. Neither side would benefit from such a use of parliamentary time.

A matter of much more consequence is whether it should be possible for the House to amend statutory instruments. Anyone can recognise the advantages of being able to do so. There might be a possibility--although I understand that it is not what the Select Committee is proposing--of identifying groups of extremely significant pieces of secondary legislation that could be amendable, but not to make secondary legislation in general amendable. That might go some way towards alleviating concern about the really poor level of draftsmanship to which the hon. Member for Honition (Sir P. Emery) referred.

Our present parliamentary calendar is ludicrous and has been determined by a hangover from when the House was run by country gentry. There are few of those left in the House, although there are a number of lawyers. We need an altogether different parliamentary calendar. If that necessitated the major constitutional change of shifting the party conferences to another time of year so that we could spread out our time more sensibly, perhaps we should consider doing that. Even within existing

Column 802

arrangements, it would be advantageous to most people to have some kind of parliamentary calendar, rather than conduct our affairs in our present haphazard way.

It is clear that, whatever we decide about the parliamentary calendar, in the end the Government will always be able to amend it if they are desperate. I cannot see many Opposition Members saying, "By God, we've triumphed this time. We've forced them to smash the parliamentary calendar to such an extent that we shall all meet on Christmas day." That will not normally be one of our objectives. It appears to me that it would be easier for you, Mr. Speaker, and for practically every hon. Member, if we had a calendar set out in advance, and, by and large, the Government made us stick to it. While we have our present approach to parliamentary government, the Government will always be able to fix what happens in the Chamber.-- [Interruption.] I believe that the Whip has misunderstood the amount of time for which the Leader of the House has asked.

I believe that in general the propositions before us are rather managerial in their approach. In line with what my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) suggested, we need a more radical change to the way in which the House goes about its tasks, because we are still obsessed with 18th-century French ideas that in some way or another the House of Commons controls the Government. The fact is that, once a Government have a majority, the Government control the House of Commons. As long as we fail to recognise that basic point, most of the propositions from the Procedure Committee will not have a substantial impact on what happens in the House or how we carry on our business. We need to start from an altogether different proposition. If we want the Procedure Committee to produce the radical changes in procedure which my party believes in, we must give it a more radical role altogether. We cannot criticise it for producing the propositions that are before us, because no one has asked it to be especially radical.

9.58 pm

Mr. Wakeham : With the permission of the House, I shall say a few words.

Because of the late start to the debate and the number of Members who wished to speak, I believed that it was better not to make a substantive reply on the issues, but to hear as many hon. Members as possible. I know that a number of hon. Members did not get into the debate. The debate was held on the Adjournment so that views could be expressed, and I cannot complain if I received some pretty strong views from a number of quarters, because that was the purpose of the exercise. It is clear that virtually any change to our procedures is considered controversial by one part of the House or another. I shall seek to find some general agreement and see whether we can make some progress.

Other matters have arisen in the debate that the Select Committee on Procedure might like to consider further and to give us some guidance on.

Sir Peter Emery : Will the shadow Leader of the House come and advise us?

Column 803

Mr. Wakeham : I believe that the hon. Gentleman spoke with considerable authority and experience of opposition, which is an important part of the balance of this House.

I shall study tonight's speeches carefully. I also hope that the overwhelming majority of Members who did not take part in this debate will also study them, because what we do will also depend upon them. It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Column 804

Milk Quotas

10 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John MacGregor) : I wonder, Mr. Speaker, whether we could take the two motions together?

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I regret having to make an objection to the two motions being taken together as I appreciate that the subject matters are linked not only in the form of the liquid, but because of the relationship between them. However, if we discuss the two motions together, the quality of scrutiny goes down, because we have only one and a half hours' debate on three different matters, including a possible amendment. Unless we finish the first motion within one and a half hours, we shall have double the time if we take them separately. Therefore, on the grounds of scrutiny, I object to the motions being taken together.

Mr. Speaker : We shall deal first with the motion on milk quotas.

Mr. MacGregor : I am perfectly content to take the two motions separately.

I beg to move,

That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 8108/88 on milk and milk products and of the Government's intention to pursue agreement which meets the requirements of the European Court's judgment while containing costs and ensuring that the effectiveness of milk quotas is maintained.

It is important to give the House a brief reminder of the background of this matter. In 1984, when milk quotas were first introduced, it was clear that something had to be done to deal with sharply-rising surpluses and ever-escalating spending on support for the dairy sector. The existing regime was simply not working, so the Community had to act. Quotas were not the Government's original preferred approach, but it became clear during the negotiations in autumn 1983--I was Minister of State at that time and involved in the negotiations--that quotas were the only negotiable solution for the Council of Ten Ministers, as it then was.

There are considerable disadvantages to milk quotas, and I have never hidden that fact. They involve a large and costly administrative burden for the Government and industry. Perhaps one of their biggest disadvantages is that they inhibit new entrants to the industry and inhibit entrepreneurial farmers within it. On the other hand, quotas have enabled the industry to contain its dairy problem. I say "contain" because expenditure is still high, and the dairy regime is still the most expensive in the Community.

It is true that the surpluses are largely being dealt with--the "vanishing mountains", as I have described them--and it is important for the public and hon. Members to realise that today those mountains are vanishing.

In the past year we have seen an 80 per cent. decline in the butter mountain in the United Kingdom and the skimmed milk powder mountain has vanished. The disposal of production, however, is still heavily subsidised. About three quarters of the Community's skimmed milk powder production and one fifth of butter production receives a subsidy to assist in finding an outlet for that production. We are now trying to deal with that problem

Column 805

and are urging that some of the subsidies should be reduced. The Commission, with my encouragement, has now taken action on that matter.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford) : I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that the Court of Auditors recently pronounced on the incredible waste connected with the public storage of goods that form part of the common agricultural policy. That storage costs us about £3 billion- plus a year, and the Court of Auditors described the whole system as a total shambles and utterly discredited. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must do something to get this matter under control, because it represents one of the greatest wastes of public expenditure that the country witnesses?

Mr. MacGregor : My hon. Friend goes a little far, and perhaps I can explain why. We are not talking about £3 billion being wasted through bad storage methods. A large part of that cost has been incurred in the straight storage and disposal of the surpluses. I made it clear that, as a result of the CAP reforms, those surpluses are significantly falling, so, over a period, that cost will reduce. Where the Court of Auditors has been right in drawing our attention to difficulties is in respect of the way in which some of the storage and dispoal systems have been operating. The cost of these difficulties is a much lesser figure. The real need is to get rid of the surpluses, for that is the way that costs will come down. Nevertheless, while we have surpluses, I am in favour of ensuring that we operate them as efficiently as possible and that there is no waste or mismanagement. That makes for inefficient use of resources for which the taxpayer has to pay. I assure my hon. Friend that I drew attention to the Court of Auditors' report at the last Council meeting, saying that we should all be concerned to learn its lessons. I am glad to say that I was supported by the Commission, and that the Council will be considering the report shortly. But the distinction to make is an important one.

I referred to some of the quota system's helpful elements, including containing expenditure. Above all, on that side of the equation, quotas have given our dairy farmers stability. Producer numbers have fallen since quotas were imposed, but that is the continuation of a long-term trend. Fundamentally, dairy farmers know the broad constraints within which they will be working until 1992. The price they receive for their output is about 3 per cent. higher than it was a year ago. Dairy farming profits, which were falling when quotas were introduced, have risen steadily since then. With the rationalisation of processing capacity that has occurred, the industry is in good shape to maximise the value of its production, and- -with curbs on production--that will be the key to its future prosperity.

One of the other, often very difficult, problems about quotas is the acute difficulties that arise--especially in the initial stages but also subsequently from time to time--in the methods of and principles applied to the distribution of quotas. That was one of the most difficult tasks facing us on the introduction of quotas--deciding how to distribute them. It is one of the issues before us tonight. In April, the European Court ruled that the original Community quota regulations were in breach of Community law by failing to make provision for producers who intended returning to

Column 806

production after fulfilling the four or five -year cessation period required by the scheme. That judgment requires the Commission to make proposals for changes to the quota regulations.

At this point, I stress that neither the Council of Ministers nor the Commission in any way welcomes that development. It presented a problem that we did not seek and the need for policy changes that we did not wish to make. However, the Council is obliged to act in response to a European Court judgment. It has no option.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton) : There is an option. If the Council of Ministers agrees that this is thoroughly disadvantageous, an amendment to the treaty would overturn the Court's ruling.

Mr. MacGregor : That is probably beyond the abilities of the Council of Agriculture Ministers to bring about. We feel that we must act within the Court's judgment, but I shall explain how we are trying to minimise the disadvantages. In view of the shortness of this debate, and despite the fact that it is a single debate, perhaps I ought to get on with my speech, so that other right hon. and hon. Members may have an opportunity to contribute.

I have sympathy with those farmers who have complained about the measures that the Council is now considering on the ground that they are unfair to existing producers--for example, those with development awards, and particularly those who found their original quota requests sharply cut back in 1984. I have to say that this is not a step taken by Ministers on their initiative. We are being purely reactive, as we are obliged to be, and it has been my objective--and here I come to my hon. Friend's point--to minimise possible unfairnesses.

The Commission's response to the Court's decision is the package of proposals as refined for decision by the Council and set out in document COM(88)446. Briefly, a new category of producer eligible for the allocation of quota is defined on the basis of restrictive criteria. These are designed to ensure that the only producers who benefit will be those who are committed to return to milk production, although they joined the cessation scheme at the time.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mo n) : How is the Court's decision being interpreted? Does it apply to farmers who ceased milk production if the five-year period was before 1984, or specifically to those cases in which the five-year period ended after that year? Would such farmers be prevented from applying for quotas? Many of them would like that to be clarified.

Mr. MacGregor : I cannot give a clear answer to that question yet, because it is one of the matters currently being debated in the Council.

An increase in the Community quota reserve of 500,000 tonnes is proposed to alleviate the problems faced by member states in allocating quotas to the new category of producers. To compensate in part for the extra costs flowing from the additional production, the Commission proposes to reduce the butter intervention price by 2 per cent., which would be offset by a reduction in the co-responsibility levy for small producers. Finally, the package incorporates a technical change in the way in which supplementary levy is calculated to clarify member

Column 807

states' liability in the first two years of quotas. Those are the key ingredients. There are a number of other detailed points which there is not time to go into this evening.

From the outset of our Council discussions, I emphasised my belief that we should be guided by certain principles. First, we should aim to ensure that the quotas of existing producers were not affected by the need to respond to the Court's decision. Secondly, the conditions for eligibility should be restrictively drawn to ensure that only those genuinely intending to go back into milk--and then doing so--should benefit. Thirdly, the quota should not be capable of being sold or leased.

I know that those points have been strongly supported by many of our farmers, and I am pleased to see that there has been growing support for them in the Council. The measures before us reflect them, while taking fair account of the interests of those producers who clearly did and do intend to return to milk production. Moreover--this is another important criterion --the package now taking shape will not undermine the effectiveness of the quota system.

The package has already been subject to considerable discussion in the Council, and I cannot be certain when we shall reach final decisions, although I hope--it is only a hope, but I intend to try to achieve it--that it will be at the December Council. I am keen to resolve the issue--which is causing uncertainty among our dairy farmers--as quickly as possible. Overall, however, while a number of points of detail remain to be resolved, the question of eligibility conditions seems to be moving to a satisfactory resolution. The remainder of the package has received rather less attention in Community discussion, but raises some important issues. In view of the continuing level of surplus production, I regret the need to increase the total amount of quota available, but--as I have said--it was not of our choosing. It will not be easy to avoid, given the need to make provisions for a new category of producers without affecting the outlook for those who already hold quotas. The need to limit the potential demand for new quota is the main reason for keeping the eligibility criteria very restrictive.

I support the proposed cut in the butter price, although I regret that even on the Commission's figures it does not compensate for the whole cost of the extra quota proposed. Given the current cost of the dairy regime-- which, as I explained, is still the most expensive in the Community--it would have been unfair to seek compensatory savings from other sectors for a problem that has arisen in the dairy sector itself.

By the same token, I am unhappy at the suggested cut in the co- responsibility levy for very small producers. It has little economic justification ; it is not relevant to the Court's judgment that we have to implement ; and it disadvantages the United Kingdom because so few of our producers fall into that category. I have therefore been opposing it.

Overall, this is a complex proposal which has been forced on the Community by an unexpected decision of the Court. However, in the light of discussions so far, there are better prospects than I feared at the outset of a package emerging that is reasonable in all the circumstances. There is still, therefore, enough time for us to ask for views and to reach a final decision. That is why I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate. I have made a short speech to enable as many hon. Members as possible

Column 808

to express their views on the proposal. It will enable me to take their views into account when I prepare my approach to the further and, I hope, final Council discussions.

10.15 pm

Dr. David Clark (South Shields) : I, too, intend to restrict my remarks to the aftermath of the Mu"lder case so that as many right hon. and hon. Members as possible can take part in the debate. We welcome the opportunity to discuss this important matter. It enables hon. Members to put their views to the Minister, which he will be able to take with him to the meeting that is to be held between 12 and 16 December. He can then fight for what we believe in. Many hon. Members believe that the Court's judgment is perverse, but that is the legally correct position and we have to abide by it. Nevertheless, the judgment highlights the injustices that many small dairy farmers face. They have done badly out of the introduction of quotas. They have not had the advantage of the golden handshake schemes from which farmers who are covered by the Mu"lder judgment can benefit. That fact needs to be put on the record. Many small farmers were able to make a living before the introduction of quotas. The cuts, however, have made it difficult for them to continue in business as dairy farmers.

The Minister implied that the Mu"lder case presents the Commission with a serious problem. A literal and generous interpretation of the Court's judgment could mean that an additional 5 million tonnes of milk would have to be found. To put that into perspective, I understand that that is roughly equal to the total quantity of milk that has been saved since the introduction of generous quota systems in 1984. Faced with that dilemma, the Commission felt that it had been placed in an impossible position. It has therefore proposed a limited scheme.

It would be useful if the Minister could tell hon. Members about the bargaining positions of the other member states. It would also be useful if he could further clarify the British Government's stance. We understand that the new scheme will be available only to those farmers who received the non-marketing premiums after 1 April 1984. That is restrictive, but I do not grumble about it. We understand also that the new scheme will apply only to farmers who are able to show that they can run viable dairy units. It will not apply to farmers who are already in receipt of the dairy quota.

The most interesting aspect of the Commission's proposals--I stress that they are proposals--is that the Minister was frank and open at the November Council meetings when these matters were discussed. His stance was known when the Council was discussing the small group of people who are eligible. The Minister supported the Commission's proposals. May we be told about the attitude of the Germans, the main beneficiaries of the scheme, and that of the Danes and the southern Europeans to the scheme, who will not benefit from it?

Another interesting point in the document is that if any of the new quota is subsequently leased or sold it will be confiscated and returned to the Community's reserve. When, a few minutes ago, the Minister elaborated on that, the House applauded what he said. Is it likely that if quotas are leased or sold they will be confiscated and returned to the Community reserve, or will we find that

Column 809

that clause is not implemented? We think that the extra quota should not have a cash value on it. I hope that the Minister can give us a firm assurance about that.

The Minister has previously cautioned farmers about the inherent value of quotas and warned that, while they have a value now, there is no guarantee that quotas will go on indefinitely. It is right to repeat that, because we are all aware of the considerable amount of money that is spent on the leasing and purchasing of quotas. Will the Minister take on board the worry that there could be transnational quota purchases after 1992? There are considerable differences between the market prices of

Column 810

quotas in the Republic of Ireland, Britain and Holland. At the moment it is not possible to trade quota across national boundaries, but such trade will presumably be allowed after 1992. That being so, the concept of a national quota, which we found acceptable, could be destroyed. Taking the argument to its logical conclusion, we could find that there are no cows in Britain, and that all milk is produced in Holland.

We basically support the Government's line, and we think that they and the Commission are right to try to restrict the availability of quota. We find the judgment rather unfair, bearing in mind the fact that many small farmers have done rather badly out of the milk quota system.

Next Section

  Home Page