Home Page

Column 1103

House of Commons

Thursday 25 May 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Associated British Ports

(No. 2) Bill-- (By Order) Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [23 May], That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Debate to be resumed on Thursday 8 June.

British Railways (Penalty Fares) Bill

[Lords] (By Order)

London Regional Transport (Penalty Fares) Bill

[Lords] (By Order)

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Thursday 8 June.

Hythe, Kent, Marina Bill

(By Order)

London Underground (Victoria) Bill

(By Order)

British Film Institute Southbank Bill

(By Order) Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 8 June.

Redbridge London Borough Council Bill

(By Order) Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 6 June at Seven o'clock.

Wentworth Estate Bill

(By Order)

Read a Second time and committed.

Oral Answers to Questions


Sheepmeat Regime

1. Mr. Geraint Howells : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on progress on the negotiations on the future of the sheepmeat regime.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John MacGregor) : Discussions on the Commission's proposals for changes tthe sheepmeat regime have made little progress. I suspect that negotiations are likely to continue for some time.

Mr. Howells : I am sure that many of our sheep farmers would like to know whether the Minister is in favour of the

Column 1104

present grading system, the deficiency payment and the headage payment, or is he in favour of further cuts in support systems.

Mr. MacGregor : I certainly think that we have to tackle the escalating cost of the sheepmeat regime because it has virtually doubled in three years and is now nearly 1.7 million ecus. In terms of the outcome of the regime, I am very much in favour of ensuring a system that will enable our industry to gain full benefits from its excellent structure, efficiency and expertise and from our natural advantages. I suspect that at some stage we will be looking at a different set of proposals, which is why I do not want to be too specific about how exactly we achieve our objectives. I am clear about our objectives and that we want to ensure that our sheepmeat industry has the maximum opportunities in the Community. I have made it clear from the outset that I am opposed to limits on headage payments.

Mr. Ian Bruce : My right hon. Friend will know that the farmers of south Dorset are particularly well set up and very efficient producers of mutton and lamb, and that they depend very much on the sheepmeat regime. Can my right hon. Friend reassure them that by a combination of the sheepmeat regime and green pound reform the Government will ensure that it is economic to produce mutton and lamb well into the next century?

Mr. MacGregor : I can assure my hon. Friend that that is very much my objective. Recent decisions that I have secured in the Community have proved that. My hon. Friend will know that the green pound devaluation which we secured in the recent price negotiations was more than double that of our nearest competitors in the Community. That greatly improves the competitive position of our producers and is another indication of how I fight for their interests.

Mr. Home Robertson : What is the Minister's reaction to the fact that the European Commission wants to do away with variable premiums by 1992? The Commission specifically proposes to impose headage limits for hill livestock compensatory allowances. Is that not a serious threat of discrimination against British producers, especially those in the hills and uplands? Will he take this opportunity to give sheep farmers and their employees a clear statement of his and the Government's intentions for the future of the industry?

Mr. MacGregor : I have already made it clear that I am determined to fight for their interests in the way that I have always done. I have indicated the extra benefit that we secured in the price negotiations this year. I am as opposed as anyone to the imposition of limits on headage payments, because as well as running against the general objective of the CAP, which is to reward efficient producers and take advantage of natural advantages, it is clearly discriminatory. It also fails to take account of the importance to producers on quite modest incomes of the need to have substantial numbers of sheep in certain parts of the country, especially in Scotland where I have been for the last two days and where I thoroughly discussed these matters with Scottish sheep producers.

Column 1105

Irradiated Food

4. Mr. Morgan : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether a diagnostic test for irradiated food is yet available.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Richard Ryder) : Work is continuing to develop tests that could be applied to particular categories of produce. Meanwhile, in those countries where food irradiation is already permitted, control of the process is carried out by licensing and documentary checks as recommended by the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

Mr. Morgan : Can the Minister confirm that with or without the availability of a diagnostic test his Government have decided to authorise the legitimation of the sale of irradiated food? Perhaps that is inevitable. If we believe everything we read in Vanity Fair the Prime Minister herself believes that ionising radiation in the bath will extend her shelf life. Is it not the case that dodgy produce that has passed its sell-by date is as unacceptable to the British consumer as are Prime Ministers who have passed their sell-by date?

Mr. Ryder : The World Health Organisation approves of irradiation. More than 20 countries use irradiation, and more than 30 countries, including the United States and France, permit it despite there being no test available to those countries. Under those circumstances, there is no reason why we should not follow suit.

Mr. Ashby : Does my hon. Friend realise that the consumer finds it unacceptable not to be given the choice of choosing food that is irradiated or not? Until a test is available that can inform the consumer whether food is irradiated it should not be sold in this country.

Mr. Ryder : I ask my hon. Friend to be patient. Next month we shall publish a report by some of our officials who are drawing up a framework for irradiation. I will be greatly surprised if labelling does not feature among their main recommendations.

Dr. David Clark : As no diagnostic test currently exists, does the Minister appreciate that not only consumers but farmers, retailers and the Labour party are against irradiated food? The only people in favour are the Government's big business backers. Will the Government back down and respect the will of the British people not to market irradiated food in this country until a diagnostic test is available?

Mr. Ryder : I have seldom heard such nonsense. The advisory committee on irradiation and novel foods, formerly under the chairmanship of the master of Darwin college, Cambridge, and now under the chairmanship of the vice-chancellor of the university of East Anglia, concluded without doubt that irradiation is safe. All the Government's scientific advisers have shown that it is safe, as has the World Health Organisation. More than 30 countries permit it, so why not Britain?

5. Mr. Sumberg : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has received regarding the proposed introduction of food irradiation in the United Kingdom ; and if he will make a statement.

Column 1106

Mr. MacGregor : As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said, the Government accept independent scientific advice that food irradiation, properly applied, is safe, and that moreover it offers consumers real health and economic benefits. I have just received the report from officials on the framework of controls that would be necessary if we were to remove the present prohibition. I will announce a decision as soon as consideration of their report has been completed. A number of organisations and individual bodies have drawn attention to specific matters relevant to the controls, and they too will be taken into account in our consideration.

Mr. Sumberg : I hope that my right hon. Friend will move cautiously. There is widespread public concern that irradiation will merely mask unsafe foods. After all, we have lived happily for generations without it, and can do so in the future. There is a danger that 30 years hence we shall all be back here saying that we should not have taken such a step because there has been damage to life and health.

Mr. MacGregor : The advice of scientists from 54 countries, based on their consideration of the matter over a long period, is that they believe irradiation is safe. It is important of course that food is not unfit for consumption before it is irradiated. Irradiation can do nothing for food that has already deteriorated, any more than can pasteurisation.

Provided that there is a proper framework of controls, irradiation will help to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of food, and it has a contribution to make to the reduction of food-borne illnesses. Irradiation has been shown to be effective in significantly reducing the organisms that cause illnesses such as salmonella and listeria. When I present the working party's report on the framework of controls, I hope that we shall then have an informed debate.

Mr. Martyn Jones : Does the Minister accept that, leaving aside the probable dangers of irradiation in terms of the creation of free radicals which may well create chemicals within food which are dangerous to human health, irradiation is dangerous because it is impossible to detect whether the food was unfit before it was irradiated? The only way of detecting whether food is of sufficient quality at present is by examining the bacterial load on that food. We have no means of detecting the original bacterial load before the bacteria have been killed by irradiation.

Mr. MacGregor : The advisory committee on irradiated and novel foods consists of top-level experts specialising in radiological protection, biochemistry, microbiology, toxicology and nutrition. They have thoroughly examined all aspects of the subject and have come to the clear conclusion that it will not prejudice the safety and wholesomeness of food and that it has certain advantages. The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clarke) may be correct in what he said about the Labour party, but I can assure him that he is not correct in what he said about the responses of many consumer organisations, farmers, consumers and others outside the industry.

Mr. Greg Knight : Is my right hon. Friend aware that every winter an advertisement on television shows a young boy who eats a bowl of porridge and then starts to emit a red glow? Is he aware that many members of the public feel

Column 1107

that a similar result may occur when they eat irradiated food? It is absolutely necessary that there is public confidence in this matter. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will take whatever steps necessary to bring about that confidence?

Mr. McGregor : Yes, indeed. We ave already received a report from the advisory committee on irradiated and novel foods. There have been many conferences in many countries, and as my hon. Friend said, irradiation is practiced in more than 20 countries and is available in more. It is important to have a proper framework of control in general and to deal with the problem of unfit food. Labelling will also be necessary so that consumers can exercise free choice. I hope that when we publish that report we will have a very thorough debate, which I believe will show that irradiation, properly controlled, can play an important part in food safety.

Dr. David Clark : Does the Minister appreciate that a great weakness of the irradiation of food is that it allows unfit food to be dressed up as good food? Is he aware that in this country imported seafood has been found to be unfit for consumption, exported to Holland, irradiated and re- imported to Britain and put on the market?

Mr. MacGregor : Such matters will be an important aspect of the framework of controls that we shall set up. I urge the hon. Gentleman to await the publication of the working party report and the Government's conclusions on it.

EC Price-fixing

6. Mr. Latham : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what response he has received on the outcome of the recent price- fixing negotiations in Brussels.

Mr. MacGregor : The price settlement was very satisfactory for the United Kingdom. The green pound devaluations and reductions in the milk co- responsibility levy which I secured have been particularly welcomed in the House and elsewhere.

Mr. Latham : Is my right hon. Friend aware that he is entitled to gentle if not ecstatic congratulations on that generally satisfactory outcome? Is it not particularly good that there has been a step towards reducing the milk co-responsibility levy and will he press for further progress in that regard?

Mr. MacGregor : Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the major breakthroughs in this year's price negotiations was that we achieved a reduction in the milk co-responsibility levy across the board, and elimination of it in less-favoured areas. We also secured a commitment that that would be the first stage in further developments towards phasing it out. It is particularly satisfactory that many other Ministers now recognise that the milk co-responsibility levy does not necessarily have a part to play in the CAP reforms. I hope to extend that to cereals. I assure my hon. Friend that I will be pressing for further progress in future price negotiations.

Mr. Kirkwood : Will the Minister give us an assurance that the recent changes in interest rates will be taken into acount in future price- fixing negotiations, as they are creating adverse financial conditions for farmers in my constituency? Returning to headage payments, is the

Column 1108

Minister aware that 884 farms in my constituency and in Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale are in receipt of hill livestock compensatory allowances, and the headage payments restrictions would adverseley affect them? We welcome the Minister's support, and hope that he will strengthen his resolve to ensure that those arrangements are not interfered with.

Mr. MacGregor : The next price negotiations--I am almost tempted to say thank goodness because they take so much time--will not begin for another nine months or so. It would not be right for me to comment on what general aspects of agriculture we shall be considering then. The draft proposals for the hill livestock compensatory allowances are only at an early stage of consideration and I am sure that there will be long negotiations on them. I have made clear my position on headage payments limits, but I must point out that one of the difficulties facing us is that a number of other member states are trying to skew the many elements of the common agricultural policy far more towards very small farmers. That is not in the interests of agriculture in the Community as a whole. However, it is one of the factors that they will be taking into account in looking at the limitations, so I shall have quite a battle. I am clear that it would be a mistake to extend the system any further. I voted against the beef regime recently because I disliked the limitation on headage payments there.

Mr. Knapman : Will my right hon. Friend inform the House what effect the devaluation of the green pound will have on farmers' incomes?

Mr. MacGregor : I am glad to say that the changes in the green pound this year will, of themselves, add about £155 million to farmers' incomes, but will have a negligible effect on the retail prices index.

Mr. Ron Davies : That, of course, will not do anything to offset the 20 per cent. loss in farm incomes from which farmers have suffered since 1983. Can the Minister tell us whether, when he was in Brussels, he discussed the pricing of organic produce? Can he tell us especially whether he tried to convert his colleagues in Brussels to the view advanced in Britain by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who said a couple of weeks ago that he regarded the production of organic food as another means by which farmers rip off consumers?

Mr. MacGregor : That is not what my right hon. Friend said.

Mr. Ron Davies : Yes, it is.

Mr. MacGregor : In answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, we did not discuss the pricing of organic produce in Brussels and we have not done so before. The increase in organic production has a part to play--although in my own view, it is not a major part--in the development of agriculture and it is important to allow it to develop because I know that some consumers especially want organic food. It is important that organic produce should be defined correctly and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome our recent announcement about an agreement on standards for organic produce, which is an essential first step in the development of organic produce.

Column 1109

Mr. Charles Wardle : My right hon. Friend won many advantages for British farmers in the Brussels negotiations. Did he have an opportunity to discuss the fruit and vegetable regime, which still suffers from many inefficiencies, costs about £1 billion ecu a year and has been sharply criticised by the Court of Auditors?

Mr. MacGregor : I have noticed that the Court of Auditors has just criticised the operation of the regime and I am trying to get hold of a copy of its report myself because I want to study it urgently. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said about the price negotiations. We managed to extend the stabilisers to certain further vegetables and there have been, therefore, reductions in price there, which will be helpful in dealing with some of the critical aspects of the regime that my hon. Friend has in mind.


7. Mr. Tony Banks : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what progress is being made in reducing the damage to the world's whale population.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Donald Thompson) : The moratorium on commercial whaling, agreed by the International Whaling Commission, has been the major step in reducing damage to the world's whale population. It has been in place since 1985 and effectively observed since 1987. The United Kingdom has played a leading role in achieving that and in tackling possible loopholes.

Mr. Banks : May I thank the Minister for his sterling work on behalf of the world's whale population? Does he agree that far more needs to be done, especially in respect of the actions of the Japanese? Does he agree that the Japanese Government seen to be positively venal in the way in which they abuse the world's animal resources, especially whales and elephant ivory? Will he ask his right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary to call in the Japanese ambassador and tell him that if the Japanese continue to exploit almost to extinction some of the most wonderful animals on this planet, we will stop buying their wretched cars and hi-fi?

Mr. Thompson : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I have a fellow feeling for both whales and elephants. We have taken the lead in sponsoring resolutions against Japanese whaling in the International Whaling Commission. Despite attracting 16 votes in favour and only four against, our latest proposal failed to be adopted by just one single vote. Nevertheless, the result clearly demonstrated the serious concern that exists not only in this House but around the world and Japan should pay firm heed to that.

Mr. Dickens : Is the Minister aware of how deeply the nation feels about the plight of whales and elephants? How much whale and elephant meat- -

Mr. Speaker : On whales, please.

Mr. Dickens : The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) mentioned elephants. What steps are being taken to prevent both those meats being imported for dog food?

Column 1110

Mr. Thompson : I do not have a specific answer to my hon. Friend's question but I shall write to him on that matter.

Lamb Variable Premium

8. Mr. Jim Marshall : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for how long he expects the lamb variable premium to continue.

Mr. Donald Thompson : There are complex negotiations ahead. We must ensure that the future regime, whether through variable premiums or some other means, enables our industry, including that in Northern Ireland to prosper and gain full advantage from the excellent structure, efficiency and expertise that it already has.

Mr. Marshall : In the light of the need to continue to reduce consumption of animal fats, does the Minister accept that any scheme succeeding the present premium should also encourage and favour the production of lean meat?

Mr. Thompson : Yes, in fact we have just reduced the maximum weight payable on fat lambs from 26.5 kg to 21 kg, which does exactly what the hon. Gentleman has requested.

Rev. Ian Paisley : As the Minister mentioned Northern Ireland in his answer, what does he see as being the future of the sheepmeat regime as we move towards 1992?

Mr. Thompson : I see the sheepmeat regime, especially that in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, moving forward with greater exports and greater efficiency. We have already exported 23,572 tonnes of sheep and mutton this year and we hope that that will continue.

Suckler Cow Premium

9. Mr. Gill : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what steps he is taking to persuade the EC to concentrate beef support on the suckler cow.

Mr. MacGregor : In the discussion on the reform of the beef regime we pressed for reduced levels of intervention support and increased direct payments to producers, particularly specialist beef producers. I am pleased to say that the case for concentrating more support on the suckler cow was recognised and we secured the possibility of a major increase in the suckler cow premium which will, following the announcement that I made recently about United Kingdom national financing, be set 42 per cent. higher in 1989-90 at the maximum permissible of £47.43 per cow.

Mr. Gill : When my right hon. Friend discusses these matters with our European partners, will he remind them that in concentrating support for beef on the suckler cow rather than on intervention and on headage payments, with all the difficulties and problems to which they give rise, they would be helping a system that would be much easier to administer, much less prone to fraud and which would target aid to rural areas and specifically to the primary producers? Will he also remind them that that in its turn would help to keep people and families in the

Column 1111

countryside, which would be helpful in producing a high quality product in a natural way and bring tremendous nutritional value to the consumer?

Mr. MacGregor : I agree with all those points. We now have a policy that is more market oriented, and that too is in the interests of the consumer. Those were the points that I had in mind when we pressed for the changes that we have now secured.

Mr. Beggs : In future, will small farmers who at present are earning more from part-time employment off their farms, benefit from all the payments that are made available on suckler cows?

Mr. MacGregor : Yes, I think that is so.

Mr. Boswell : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing a 42 per cent. increase in the suckler cow premium, not only from Europe but in negotiations with our own Treasury. Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the importance of not rushing into any proposal to amalgamate the suckler cow premium with the remaining value of the headage payment, certainly not for the present, and under no circumstances when there might be a headage limit on the suckler cow premium as well?

Mr. MacGregor : There are no further proposals on this front at present, but I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Beith : Will the Minister keep particularly in mind that any headage limitation is just as inappropriate in this area as it is for sheep, particularly in parts of the country such as Northumberland, where farms units are large and where the nature of the land and the acreages involved are such that large numbers are necessary?

Mr. MacGregor : The point about large numbers being necessary is one that I have stressed constantly in relation to limits on headage payments. As I indicated earlier on the special beef premium, I eventually voted against the final package because it still contained that element. I am sorry to say that we could not muster a qualifying blocking minority, but I indicated my position by voting as I did.

Licensed Trade (Tenants)

10. Mr. Colvin : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he proposes to take any action in response to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's recommendation on licensed trade tenants' security contained in its report on the supply of beer.

Mr. Ryder : Government decisions on the recommendations of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission are for my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. He will, of course, be taking account of the views of the National Licensed Victuallers Association.

Mr. Colvin : I should like him also to take into account the views of my hon. Friend, because he bears responsibility for tenant security for licensees ; I do not know why. He has been subject to a considerable amount of lobbying over the years by publicans who are concerned about their tenant security. As the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on the supply of beer recommended that publicans now become subject to the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 my hon. Friend will

Column 1112

obviously want to express an opinion to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and the House would like to know what that opinion is.

Mr. Ryder : As soon as the report was published, I met the NLVA. Its views have been passed on to my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. Morley : Is it not fair to say that the Minister should have consideration for the small producers of food? That could apply also to small producers in the brewing industry. The small producers have been squeezed out and crushed for far too long by the juggernauts, the few large brewers. The report gives small breweries a chance to get their beers into more chains through the guest beer slot and therefore encourages those businesses. Should not the Minister make representations to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to defend those people?

Mr. Ryder : Conscientious to a fault, I also met the small brewers soon after the report was published. It is inconceivable that my noble Friend is unaware of their views.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton : Does my hon. Friend not accept that the tenant of a pub, particularly in a rural area, plays a vital role in the community? Is he not concerned that if we erode the position of the tenant, we shall be doing great damage to rural communities? Therefore, will he not prevail upon his right hon. Friend to amend the recommendations of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report?

Mr. Ryder : My hon. Friend is tempting me, but I will resist the temptation. I am sure, having spoken to my noble Friend, that he is fully aware of the point of view that has been expressed by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Cormack : Will my hon. Friend stop being so coy? He has not only a right to an opinion but a duty to have an opinion. Is he aware that on this extremely important issue the totally unreconstructed free market philosophy advocated from the Opposition Benches is not shared by all Conservative Members?

Mr. Ryder : My hon. Friend is never short of his opinions. He can be certain that I am never short of mine when it comes to talking to my noble Friend.

Beef Premium

11. Mr. Tom Clarke : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the new beef premium.

Mr. Donald Thompson : The special premium for beef production, which replaced the beef variable premium, was introduced in the United Kingdom with effect from 3 April 1989. The first payments under the scheme were made to producers at the end of April.

Mr. Clarke : What are the Minister's views on headage limits as a means of targeting support to smaller farmers?

Mr. Thompson : I completely dislike headage limits. That is why we voted against the proposal in the Council of Europe.

Mr. Colin Shepherd : Does my hon. Friend agree with the farming industry's opinion that, because of the decline in the national dairy herd of about 1.5 per cent. to 2 per

Column 1113

cent. a year, we shall need an increase in the suckler cow herd of about 4 per cent. a year to meet the flow of beef required for the United Kingdom market? In the light of that, although the increase in the suckler cow premium to the maximum was welcome, is it possible that it will be insufficient to ensure that growth in the suckler herd? Will my hon. Friend carefully watch developments in the beef industry and ensure that growth is sustained so that United Kingdom producers can continue to supply their own present market shares and not be disadvantaged accordingly?

Mr. Thompson : It is too early yet to see what effect the increase will have on dairy and suckler herds. Nevertheless, I will do exactly as my hon. Friend asked in the latter part of his question.

Mr. Haynes : The Minister is not doing too bad. I liked his answer to the question. Is he aware that we like beautiful British beef on our tables on Sunday? I hope that the Minister will tell Europe where to get off and stop this European rubbish coming to our shores. We should all eat British beef.

Mr. Thompson : I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. The increase in the suckler cow premium will help to produce that British beef.

Next Section

  Home Page