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House of Commons

Thursday 19 January 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


British Railways (Penalty Fares) Bill

[Lords] Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 24 January.

City of London (Spitalfields Market) Bill

(By Order) Order for Third Reading read.

To be read the Third time on Tuesday 24 January at Seven o'clock.

Avon Light Rail Transit Bill

[Lords] (By Order) Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 24 January at Seven o'clock.

London Regional Transport (Penalty Fares) Bill

[Lords] (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 26 January.

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Oral Answers to Questions


Liquid Milk

1. Mr. Gregory : To ask the Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is the volume and value of liquid milk made available annually to the United Kingdom confectionery industry ; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Donald Thompson) : The predominant use of liquid milk bought by the confectionery industry is for the manufacture of chocolate crumb. In 1988 about 228 million litres, worth about £40 million, was supplied for this purpose.

Mr. Gregory I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Is it not ridiculous that while the confectionery industry would like to use more liquid milk and British farmers would like to supply it, major manufacturers such as Rowntree are prohibited from obtaining the amount that they would like? The manufacturer of great British products such as Kit Kat has had to modify its machinery, at a cost of over £1 million, to take non-liquid milk. Will my hon. Friend look at this again and boost the amount of liquid milk available to the great British confectionery industry?

Mr. Thompson : I appreciate the way in which my hon. Friend works for the great British confectionery industry at Question Time after Question Time. He does a good job. I do not think that the confectionery industry in general suffers from a shortage of liquid milk. The allocation of milk for chocolate crumb takes priority over many other uses, including territorial cheese. However, I am aware of some local problems but it is for the industry to readjust in the new climate of decreasing lakes and mountains.

Mr. Martlew : Does the Minister agree that the Milk Marketing Board is taking advantage of shortages in manufacturing to push up the prices? Is it not a disgrace that Dairy Crest, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Milk Marketing Board, is now on the board of the Dairy Trade Federation which negotiates prices with the Milk Marketing Board? Will the Minister stop looking after farmers' interests and start looking after the interests of consumers?

Mr. Thompson : For the whole of agriculture the consumer is paramount because without the consumer nothing happens. The fact that the dairy industry leads in Europe is indicative of the consideration that the dairy trade gives to the consumer and to consumers' interests. Nevertheless, the market is becoming more and more competitive for milk and milk products. That is good, because rather than putting milk and milk products into intervention they should be allowed to find their own level in the market. I do not wish to interfere in normal trade between the various sections of the milk industry.

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Mr. Paice : Will my hon. Friend tell the House what percentage of the forthcoming rise in the price of milk will go to the farmer and how much will be absorbed by the trade?

Mr. Thompson : A percentage always goes to the farmer-- [Interruption.] --and we are under constant pressure from Opposition Members, who are now laughing so gaily, to continue doorstep delivery. Some of the increase must go to pay the man who delivers the milk to our doorstep, often before we go to work.

British Poultry Federation

2. Mr. Barron : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met the British Poultry Federation ; and what matters were discussed.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. MacGregor) : My hon. Friends last met representatives of the British Poultry Federation on 23 and 29 November and 18 December 1988, to discuss consumer interests and animal welfare.

Mr. Barron : Has anyone in the Minister's Department explained to the federation, and will the Minister explain to the House, why his Department has refused to accept its statutory responsibility under section 8 of the Food Act 1984 to prosecute egg and poultry producers who have been selling eggs and poultry contaminated with salmonella?

Mr. MacGregor : The action that we have taken also relates to poultry feed plants. Our vets go to look at the situation, particularly where investigations are required, and tell the companies what work is required to put the situation right. They then go back and look at the situation again. In almost every case, the situation has been put right. The important point is whether there is a case and sufficient evidence to carry through a prosecution ; so far, we have been advised that there is not.

Mr. Marland : Would my right hon. Friend care to speculate on what would have been the effect on the taxpayer, the consumer and the market, if the rescue package that he so quickly announced after the crisis had not been launched?

Mr. MacGregor : There are later questions on the Order Paper about this. As I shall indicate later, this has been a cost-effective scheme for the taxpayer. The advertisements to indicate the measure of risk involved in relations salmonella in eggs, the chief medical officer's advice, the 15 measures that I am taking to deal with the problem at the production end and the two steps to stabilise the market have all been very much in the consumer's interest. The consumer benefits from continuity of supply and from the removal of the aging eggs. The steps that we took helped to restore stability to the market quickly.

Mr. Canavan : Will the Minister confirm the recent New Scientist report that the Government were directly responsible for cutting the number of scientists doing research into salmonella in poultry and eggs? If that report is true, should not more heads roll than that of the former Under- Secretary of State for Health?

Mr. MacGregor : I have not seen that particular report, but if it refers to the research at Bristol, I should point out

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that that decision was taken by the Agricultural and Food Research Council because it believed that exploitation in the market place was now required. Consultation is now taking place with interested companies to see whether such exploitation can take place. However, the funds which may not be used to continue that research will be diverted to other microbiological research. It is a question of the priorities set by the AFRC. I have just received the report of a working party that we set up last autumn, following the information given to the Department of Health, to consider what extra research and development might be required on salmonella and I shall consider that immediately.

Miss Emma Nicholson : Will my right hon. Friend educate the House a little further on the knotty question of salmonella by explaining that vegetarians are also at risk because sprouting beans and even watercress are major carriers of salmonella? In that context, the Norwich city council leaflet and advertisement at Christmas, showing a nut roast and saying that nut roasts do not grow salmonella alongside a defrosting turkey--

Mr. Speaker : Order. I am interested in all this, but was it discussed with the British Poultry Federation?

Miss Nicholson : Yes, Mr. Speaker. It is my understanding that the public has been led by the media to believe that salmonella is confined to animal protein products. I should like my right hon. Friend to tell the House that that is not true. Salmonella is part of the food chain and British food producers do their utmost to get rid of it. In that context, British poultry products are among the cleanest, the cheapest and the best protein sources.

Mr. MacGregor : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For as long as anyone can remember salmonella has been a major problem in food in all countries. It is in the environment and despite all our efforts it is not possible to eradicate it. That is why everyone takes steps--at all points in the production chain and also when cooking food--to minimise the risk of salmonella.

My hon. Friend is right. Salmonella is certainly not confined to eggs. There are 2,000 different strains of salmonella. In the middle of last year we faced evidence which convinced us that there were more cases of food poisoning from one particular strain. When that was identified and linked with eggs, we took action. However, my hon. Friend is right and the same situation applies in other countries.

Mr. Beggs : When the Secretary of State met the British Poultry Federation did he discuss the possibility of stopping the inclusion of recycled poultry offal and protein in feed for the poultry industry? What would be the additional cost to the consumer of a dozen eggs if we removed recycled protein in poultry feed and replaced it with vegetable protein?

Mr. MacGregor : That matter was not discussed at the last meeting, to which I referred earlier. We are considering the matter, but it is important that everyone should understand that any recycled material has to undergo heat treatment and other processes to ensure that salmonella is dealt with. The main problem with salmonella in general, and with the particular strain that

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has caused the most recent problem, is that it often arises at subsequent points because salmonella is in the environment.

Mr. Hunter : In the course of his discussions with the British Poultry Federation did my right hon. Friend discuss the federation's egg improvement scheme and what was his reaction to it?

Mr. MacGregor : That scheme was put to me in the middle of December. We considered it and I discussed it informally with one or two federation members. However, I do not believe that the scheme would have been compatible with European Community legislation.

Mr. David Clark : As the Minister has admitted in a parliamentary answer that there is no statutory reason for witholding information, why will he not give the House details of the 21 protein processing plants which were found to be supplying salmonella-contaminated feed to the egg and poultry industry? Surely we have the right to know the guilty parties.

Mr. MacGregor : As the hon. Gentleman knows, I give as much information as I can to the House, to the Select Committee on Agriculture and in many other ways on all these matters. However, in those cases we must observe commercial confidentiality and other matters of that kind in fulfilling our statutory responsibilities where it has been made clear that the identification of plants will not be divulged.


Mr. Speller : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will set quality and content standards that will allow the traditional British sausage to be exported to the European Community and other countries in Europe which at present prohibit the import of United Kingdom sausages on content, quality or labelling grounds.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Richard Ryder) : The British sausage is a traditional product designed for the home market. It is enjoyed here, and I see no reason why changes should be made to it. I know that the product is enjoyed elsewhere in the EEC, and I hope that the export activities of our sausage manufacturers and retailers will mean that this is increasingly the case.

Mr. Speller : Is my hon. Friend aware that this is Food from Britain year and that the best British meal is the British breakfast? Is he also aware that the British banger is a part of that, but under our current legislation less than one-third of a pork sausage needs to be pork and only 25 per cent. of a beef sausage must be beef? If we are to succeed in Europe, as we should, and as our meat producers wish, we require a standard which makes the word follow the name so that beef is beef and pork is pork, and never the content shall be rubbish.

Mr. Ryder : The Ministry is in regular touch with the trade interests concerned. We have not been informed of any insurmountable difficulties encountered by manufacturers or retailers in marketing the product in the EEC. If any such difficulties are brought to our attention we shall pursue the matter at once with the relevant authorities.

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Mr. Haynes : Is the Minister aware that we produce the finest bangers in the world? Is he also aware that when foreigners come here from abroad they like British bangers and mash? It is high time that the Minister made it clear that that is the position so we do not have stupid questions like this one.

Mr. Ryder : If British sausage retailers or manufacturers want to advertise their product on British or European television, the hon. Gentleman is the right man to do that for them, but any such advertisement would need to be watched with the television volume turned down.

Environmentally Sensitive Areas

4. Mr. Barry Field : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how many environmentally sensitive areas have now received payments ; and what the total estimated expenditure will be for 1988.

Mr. Ryder : There are 10 environmentally sensitive areas in England in which payments will be made in the financial year 1988-89. Those payments are estimated to amount to £8.3 million in total. Figures for the calendar year are not available.

Mr. Field : Does my hon. Friend agree that ESAs have made a valuable contribution to the Government's green policies and demonstrate the Government's care of the countryside? Can my hon. Friend tell the House how many farmers in environmentally sensitive areas who have not claimed ESA money have lost farm improvement grants? What does my hon. Friend intend to do about that when he considers the new conservation grant scheme?

Mr. Ryder : Statistics are not readily available, but outright refusal has been necessary in only a few cases. All agricultural improvement scheme applications in ESAs are examined from environmental viewpoints. Where there appears to be a risk of harm to the environment, farmers are advised how their plans can be modified to be compatible with ESA objectives.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : What plans are there to extend the number of ESAs, and what consideration is being given to extending them to those areas that still have restrictions on sheep movements as a result of the Chernobyl fallout?

Mr. Ryder : We shall be reviewing the ESAs in 1991 and 1992 when we shall consider existing boundaries and the possibility of expanding the number of ESAs. On the specific point raised by the hon. Gentleman, we do not foresee any particular changes at present.

Sir Charles Morrison : To assess the benefit or otherwise of ESAs it is clearly important that they should be adequately monitored. Is my hon. Friend sure that enough manpower and money to finance that manpower is being made available for that purpose?

Mr. Ryder : Yes, Sir.

Irish Meat

5. Mr. Matthew Taylor : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has received any representations concerning the import of Irish meat ; and if he will make a statement.

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Mr. Donald Thompson : Since my right hon. Friend replied on 22 December to the hon. Gentleman's private notice question on this matter, various hon. Members have put down related written questions which have been answered.

Mr. Taylor : Will the Minister elaborate a little more on the evidence that he has about how contaminated meat came in from Ireland and, in particular, how contaminated meat appears to have been stamped with Irish veterinary inspection stamps as being fit when it was not?

Mr. Thompson : The last correspondence that we had from the Irish Republic was on 12 January when it gave us a full report of its investigations into that particular meat consignment. We are not entirely satisfied with all those explanations and have asked for further details. There were 19 cases of meat that we considered unfit coming from Ireland in 1988 and we have followed up each of those.

Mr Nicholas Bennett : What examination is made of Irish meat that has been trans-shipped across the United Kingdom to a third country? Can my hon. Friend guarantee that no Irish meat so trans-shipped finds its way into the United Kingdom market?

Mr. Thompson : Irish beef that is trans-shipped across the United Kingdom from Ireland to a third country obviously cannot impinge upon public health in Britain. Meat that is shipped into Britain receives a veterinary certificate from the country from which it emanates. The documents are inspected by the port health authority and the local environmental health officers are diligent, as they were in Truro. Companies have their own rigorous inspection because they live by selling meat and if there is any shadow of doubt about the quality of their products they will lose customers. In addition, shop inspectors, environmental health officers and trading standards officers check meat within various retail and wholesale outlets.

Mr. William Ross : Is the Minister aware that Newry is the fourth largest point for the export of food into Great Britain? As Northern Ireland is also a food exporter, very little food from the Republic stays in Northern Ireland and a large part travels on to Scotland, England, and elsewhere and thus passes through the three legal jurisdictions of the United Kingdom, all of which have different food hygiene laws. Will the Minister ensure that the forthcoming food Bill will cover the entire United Kingdom so that the problems currently experienced by enforcement and health officers in Northern Ireland in citing British case law when prosecuting in Northern Ireland will no longer be an inhibiting factor?

Mr. Thompson : The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and it is one that we are examining in relation to the forthcoming food Bill. Although standards in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England are equally high, it is important that they are easily understood both by traders and by lawyers in each country, and we shall be working towards that in any new legislation.

Mr. Redwood : Is the Minister satisfied with current subsidy arrangements, which appear considerably to favour the Irish in exporting their meat to this country? Is he satisfied also that those subsidy arrangements are well administered?

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Mr. Thompson : That is a different question.

Mr. Ron Davies : Is the Minister aware that when his right hon. Friend the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food addressed the House on 21 December 1988 he made several factually incorrect statements? Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that his Department does not require systematic inspection of all meat imports, and that only the most cursory and inadequate examination is undertaken by an understaffed and overworked environmental health service under its general obligations? Will the Minister act on the warning given by the Institution of Environmental Health Officers that

"contaminated imports are being sent elsewhere in the United Kingdon"?

Or does he not really care about the interests of consumers?

Mr. Thompson : I care about consumers, and about the excellent work done by environmental health officers in indentifying contaminated meat entering Cornwall and preventing any disease that might have emanated from it. My right hon. Friend said that port health authorities carefully examine all documentation. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that perhaps only 5 or 6 per cent. of the meat coming within a port authority's responsibility is inspected, but consignments carry a veterinary certificate from the country of origin, which is keen to export its meat.

As I said, inspections are undertaken by the port health authority. The particular consignment of meat entering Truro, to which reference has been made, was examined by local environmental health officers in both London and Truro. Companies also have their own inspectors, and environmental health officers are good at inspections in their own districts. I have nothing but good words to say about environmental health officers. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that they are hard-pressed and harassed. They do a good job calmly and efficiently.

Mr. Redwood : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will the Minister be kind enough to send me a written answer--

Mr. Speaker : Order. That is not a point of order. It is a question to the Minister.

River Pollution

6. Mr. Gareth Wardell : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what was the number of incidents of river pollution caused by nitrates in the last year.

Mr. Ryder : Information for 1988 is not yet available. In 1987 mineral fertilisers caused 18 incidents.

Mr. Wardell : In view of the Prime Minister's welcome, albeit recent, conversion to the importance of environmental matters, does the Minister agree that it is not enough to prosecute offenders against the environment? Should not his Department do far more to assist agriculture systems that entail a lower reliance on artificial nitrogenous fertilisers?

Mr. Ryder : The hon. Gentleman should be aware that only a small proportion of nitrate pollution comes directly from fertilisers. The Government are acting on that front. Even if nitrate fertilisers were banned today we should still

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have nitrate pollution in 40 or 50 years' time, because the worst form of such pollution is connected with the ploughing up of old grassland. In the immediate aftermath of the war, in the 1950s, a large amount of grassland was ploughed up for arable use, and that is what has caused a good deal of the present pollution.

Mr. Lord : Has my hon. Friend seen the results of the research by the Rothamsted research institute? That research clearly shows that the problems caused by nitrates in water can best be improved through sensible modifications to current farming practice. Will my hon. Friend do his best to encourage farmers to put those alterations into operation, and resist demands for hasty or draconian measures that might do much more harm than good?

Mr. Ryder : I have read the Rothamsted report, and the advice that it gives. It is absolutely correct--that nitrogen fertilisers should not be applied in the autumn, that wherever possible the soil should not be left bare during the winter and that winter-sown crops should be sown early in the autumn. If a spring crop is to be sown, a winter catch crop should be grown. That advice should be followed by farmers if the problems to which the hon. Gentleman refers are to be reduced.

Ms. Quin : In view of the concern about nitrates, will the Minister consider making the code of farming practice on nitrates compulsory rather than voluntary? Will he also undertake to increase the amount of money devoted to research on the subject?

Mr. Ryder : We are considering that in the light of the desk studies.

Mr. Gale : When my hon. Friend is very properly considering nitrate levels, will he take into account the fact that it takes 20 years for nitrates spread on the land to filter through to aquifers? Will he take particular account of the fact that areas such as Thanet have very high natural nitrate levels in the soil, and will he make absolutely certain that the farming community does not carry the can for geological factors not under its control?

Mr. Ryder : All those points will be taken into account.

Mr. Alan W. Williams : May I seriously challenge the Minister's earlier explanation about nitrates in water? He said that the problem was to do with grassland. Is it not strange that high nitrate levels in water supplies occur in the very areas where fertiliser usage is at its most intense?

Mr. Ryder : That is correct, but it is also true that those areas are in the parts of Britain where there was the most ploughing up of grassland in the immediate aftermath of the war.


7. Mr. Boswell : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the outcome to date of the short-term action to stabilise the egg market announced by him on 19 December.

10. Mr. Cummings : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement about the take-up of the payment to egg packers for the destruction of surplus eggs announced on 19 December 1988.

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Mr. MacGregor : I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the schemes that I announced on 19 December, together with the Government's advertisements, have made an important contribution to restoring stability and confidence in the egg market, and have achieved their objectives with much lower costs to the taxpayer than the maximum sum for which provision was originally made. Final figures are not yet available, but I hope that the total number of cases of eggs involved will not exceed 300,000--which is 108 million eggs--and probably fewer than 450,000 hens will be culled under the scheme.

Mr. Boswell : Is not my right hon. Friend to be congratulated, rather than pilloried, on introducing a scheme at very short notice which-- at a lower cost to the taxpayer than anticipated, because of the modest take-up--has nevertheless stabilised a catastrophic market to the benefit of both producers and consumers?

Mr. MacGregor : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I think that some of the comments have missed two points. First, to restore some confidence to the market, it was necessary to be clear that we would be prepared to take what was then estimated to be the total surplus of eggs on the market. It was necessary to devise a bold scheme to give back confidence. Secondly, a crucial element was the prices offered for both eggs and hens. In the case of eggs it was necessary to put a floor in the market, covering only the cost of feedstuffs to producers.

The moment the market picked up, the schemes would no longer be necessary. They were designed to be cost-effective and yet to achieve the objective of bringing back some stability to a market that was in chaos. I believe that that action had a great deal to do with restoring confidence, and that if it had not been taken many small producers would have run into serious difficulties through no fault of their own. Some would undoubtedly have gone bankrupt.

Mr. Cummings : What plans does the Minister have to reduce our dependency on the battery system and to encourage the keeping of smaller flocks of free-range hens in a programme of mixed farming?

Mr. MacGregor : The hon. Gentleman's question relates to salmonella. There is no evidence that there is any difference in the incidence of salmonella in free-range systems compared with battery systems. Therefore, it is misleading to suggest that one should opt for one particular system, believing that that would have an impact on salmonella. There is no doubt that the battery hen system, for which we have strong welfare codes, has made a major contribution to the consumer in terms of the safety and hygiene of eggs and providing sufficient eggs at a cheap price.

Mr. Churchill : What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure the proper quality of the food that is fed to chickens to minimise the possibility of infection? Secondly, what is his Department's advice about the desirability or otherwise of keeping eggs refrigerated until they are sold?

Mr. MacGregor : On the second point, the Chief Medical Officer, the Department of Health and my Department have been giving advice on the matter for some time. We did a test market last autumn and we have been planning a major education campaign on food

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hygiene in the kitchen and in catering establishments. We shall be carrying it through very shortly and it will help to reinforce all the efforts that we have made. On the first point in relation to feeding stuffs, my hon. Friend will know that I, my officials and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary have been preparing and adopting a whole series of measures since we received the first information about this new strain of salmonella and its effect in the summer. Some 15 measures have now been announced or are already in operation. Some of those measures relate to my hon. Friend's question about feeding stuffs. However, I have to add that no matter how high the standards of the feeding stuffs coming out of the plant, there is still the risk of that strain of salmonella getting into the feeding stuffs through the environment, so that problem must also be tackled.

Dr. David Clark : The Minister quite rightly prides himself on his announcement to the House on 19 December, but why since then has he continued to announce major policy changes by his ministry through selected newspapers? Is he afraid to announce his proposals to the House because he knows that under scrutiny his proposals will be found wanting? If that is not the case, will he come to the House later today and make those announcements?

Mr. MacGregor : Several of the announcements which have been repeated in newspapers were made in the House throughout December. There was great public interest in this matter so it was right constantly to explain what we were planning to do. I did not make any new announcements yesterday. It is interesting that information on all the measures that I announced in response to a parliamentary question yesterday was given to the House in a joint memorandum by my Department and the Department of Health to the Select Committee on Agriculture when it started its proceedings. I thought that it was right to answer the question again yesterday, so I gave the same information to the House, although the wording was slightly different. I am endeavouring to give the House all the information as soon as the decisions have been taken.

Mr. John Townend : Does my right hon. Friend agree that when faced with a financial hurricane, a wise man battens down the hatches immediately? Is it fair that he should then be penalised by the Government? An egg producer in my constituency slaughtered 35,000 chickens a few days before the announcement of the compensation scheme, so he will receive nothing. Will my right hon. Friend consider backdating the scheme to the day when the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) made her original speech? Mr. MacGregor : No, I do not think it would be right to backdate this scheme. I made that clear on 19 December, and I will give just two reasons why. First, it would be difficult to get all the evidence. Secondly, a lot of the culling that was taking place was of older hens, and some of that happens all the time. I would not think it right to use taxpayers' money for that purpose because the scheme that I introduced on the hen side was designed to deal with the young laying hens which could have had an impact on the surpluses in the months ahead. So I could not backdate the scheme in the way that my hon. Friend suggests.

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