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Column 785Mr. Gummer : I thought that, when I gave way last time, I was giving way to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle, but my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) thought that I was giving way to him. It is perhaps only fair to give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle ; then I shall give way to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman).
The House should recognise that, in itself, a change in the green pound will not increase the incomes of farmers : it will merely remove the decrease in the incomes of farmers that would otherwise be there. [ Hon. Members :-- "What?"] I shall explain, although if hon. Members do not understand, they cannot have been listening to the farming lobby. The farmers understand what the green pound means, which is that British farmers get less for their products than farmers in other parts of the Community.
By putting that right, one would only be putting the returns of British farmers on a level with those of other farmers ; one would not be giving British farmers a price increase or an advantage. The trouble with the negotiations is that our colleagues in the European Community tend to suggest that, somehow, a change in the level of the green pound is a gift to the British farmer. I want to make it clear that that is not how the Government see the situation. The Government see this quite clearly as removing a disadvantage rather than as giving the British farmer an advantage.
I have agreed to give way to hon. Members in order, and I now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle, after which I shall give way to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow.
Mr. Leigh : My right hon. Friend has outlined the problem very well. Does he agree that, as the president of the Country Landowners Association said to him in a recent letter, the association accepts that market forces will have to play a larger part in farming in the future? My right hon. Friend ought to accept that. Will he please make it absolutely clear that he is talking about giving our farmers--as a Member for a Lincolnshire constituency I represent some of the most efficient farmers in the world--a fair competitive position, a level playing field? Our farmers simply want a chance to compete. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will fight his corner? That is what our farmers want to know.
Mr. Gummer : That is precisely why I have been trying to say that we must get out of the habit of suggesting that, somehow or other, this is a gift to farmers--something to advance them--rather than the righting of a wrong. That is the distinction that many of our friends in the European Community find it difficult to follow. They--very often pushed by their own farming organisations--feel that farmers in Britain are being given an advantage, rather than having a disadvantage removed.
Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central) rose --
Dr. Godman : Clearly the Minister must press for fair treatment for farmers in the United Kingdom. Surely, however, he must acknowledge that in these negotiations he has responsibilities that extend beyond the shores of the United Kingdom. Among the people concerned are the
Column 786cane sugar producers in the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. No doubt they would welcome an assurance concerning their interests. My constituents working in one of the refineries here would welcome an assurance that the interests of the cane sugar producers of the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries too will be looked after.
Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding) : I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind taking a little longer on the central point of the green pound. His efforts in Brussels on behalf of the entire farming industry of this country are greatly appreciated. Will he, however, say loudly and clearly, in this House today and in the Agriculture Council in Brussels, that there is no possible reason--in economics, in equity, or in logic--for farmers being unable to sell their products within the Community at prices expressed in terms of real currencies rather than in terms of the artificially administered currency of the green pound? Every other business deals in real currency.
Mr. Gummer : I have said again and again that I do not believe that a system that results in the farmers of one country getting an inferior price merely because of the arrangements between currencies is acceptable. I am absolutely committed to the total dismantling of such a system. I am appalled that there are in the Community some people who do no accept the statements of the Court of Auditors that it would be impossible to have such a system after 1992.
I am committed to ensuring that we get a proper deal for the British farmer. However, I adopt that attitude in a situation in which we have a large number of friends but few immediate allies. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will allow me to leave the terms of negotiations to one side. It must be a matter of getting the best that I can in the context of those negotiations, which will go on for some time.
Mr. Lord rose --
Mr. Lord rose --
I make no apology for speaking about the same point, because it is the most important one that we have to consider. There has been talk about the incomes of farmers generally. My right hon. Friend must be well aware of the position of cereal farmers, whose profitability is now in real danger. There is great concern about this matter. Even if the people in Europe with whom we negotiate are not as concerned about our farmers as we are, surely they must be concerned about our opinion of their fairness. It is absolutely crucial, as hon. Members on this side of the House have said, that my right hon. Friend go to Europe with the firmest possible resolve to get the fairest possible deal for our farmers, so that they may see that Europe is fair.
Column 787in some farmers getting a substantially lower price than others do because of the way that the agrimonetary system works. However strongly one is opposed to the CAP system, that cannot be right. Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian) rose--
Mr. Eadie : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I realise that the Minister is doing his best to explain, and that he is giving way. However, he must realise that he is responsible to the whole House. It is his right to decide whether to give way, and it is our privilege when he does, but he must give way to Members on both sides. Otherwise he will leave himself open to being known as the most unfair Minister of Agriculture we have ever had.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : The whole House knows that it is a matter for the Minister whether or not to give way. In fairness, I should point out that he has given way already to hon. Members on both sides.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) rose--
In particular areas of agriculture, there are very special problems that are even more sharp this year than they were last year. I mentioned the overall figure--and increase in farming incomes--and I hope that hon. Members will feel that, in not laying too much emphasis on that, I was being fair. In one area in particular there was a decrease in farming incomes. In that regard, I was particularly concerned, even outwith our negotiations on the green pound, to give some special help. That is why, last week, I announced an increase in the hill livestock compensatory allowances for the ewes of hardy breeds. That represents £5.2 million extra money going into that very difficult area of agriculture.
Perhaps the House will agree that when, in our discussions in the European Community, we come to the question of the best way of helping our farmers to look after the land and to produce the food that we need, we must first of all ensure that there is fairness as between farmers. Secondly, we must look in particular at those areas where farming is very difficult and where farming practices are of particular importance in the context of the environment. The fact is that, in our highlands, the kind of countryside that we have grown to expect and accept can survive only if it is properly farmed. Therefore, the retention of sheep on those hills is a crucial part of any sensible environmental policy.
However, I still believe that we have not quite got the balance entirely right. That is why we were willing to press the Commission to allow us to introduce into the HLCA concept a rather greater element of conservation. We shall be looking, over the coming months, at the best way of doing that. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will probably agree that it is right that we should do so.
On marginal farming, does not the Minister accept the cumulative disadvantage because of the green pound differential? Will he remind the House what the cumulative disadvantage has been over the last 10 years? As the Government came to power, if I remember correctly, on a pledge to eliminate the green pound differential, is there not a strong case for proceeding faster on eliminating the green pound differential than either the Commission or the Government propose?
Mr Gummer : It is difficult to accept that it could be faster than the Government propose. The Government propose that I should use my best endeavours in the negotiations to get the best deal. I find it an odd concept that the hon. Gentleman assumes that I should propose something when I have said specifically that we will negotiate. If we are negotiating, we have to negotiate, we should not start by saying to the people with whom we are negotiating, "That is the bottom line, " or we would not get the best answer. I do not know how much negotiating the hon. Gentleman has done but I am sure, whatever he has done, that he will agree that that is a reasonable basis. As for the hon. Gentleman's other comments, we are committed to the eradication of the green pound and its replacement by a system which does not disadvantage farmers as they have been disadvantaged in the past. I remind him that there have been periods in which farmers have had advantage from the green pound, but that does not help much when they are at a disadvantage.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to consider the period in which farmers were hardest hit by the green pound, he should take the period when John Silkin was Minister of Agriculture. At that time, the Labour party insisted upon the green pound gap getting bigger and bigger, so that it might have a counter-inflationary effect. The incoming Conservative Government stripped that away, having given an election pledge which was opposed by the Labour party. When my hon. Friends hear, as no doubt they will, pressure from the Labour party to reduce or eradicate the green pound gap, I hope they will remember what happened when Labour was in power. The Labour Government steadfastly refused to eradicate the difference between Britain and other countries, and steadfastly insisted that farmers bore the burden of their anti-inflationary policy.
On prices, we ought to support strongly the Commission's proposal for a price freeze. Although the stabiliser regime has had significant advantages, it has been operating at the same time as harvest conditions have helped to reduce the mountains and dry up the lakes. I believe that over-production in British and European farming does considerable harm not only to the taxpayer's pocket but also to the reputation of the farmer. It is not helpful to the farmer to be thought of as the producer of food that nobody wants to eat. Therefore, the stabiliser regime is of great importance if the farmer is to regain the reputation in society which he deserves and which he lost to some extent during the early period of surpluses. So I support the price freeze, and I strongly support the maintenance of stabilisers ; and I oppose those in the Community who have sought to weaken stabilisers.
Column 789About a fortnight ago, I had the pleasure of addressing an audience of farmers and Ministers of Agriculture in Berlin. I had to listen to a speech on behalf of German farmers, given by the leader of the German farming unions. He sought the abolition of stabilisers and the removal of all those things that put into the common agricultual policy a sensible measure of restraint, in order, he thought, to advance the farmer's cause. I believe that that would disadvantage the farmer. It would do grave damage to the farmer if we changed the hard-fought system which we have got. That means that we ought to go further.
It is outrageous that we should subsidise the increased growth of tobacco in the Community when most member states are seeking to reduce the consumption of tobacco. So that the House may understand how serious it is, may I point out that the marginal cost to FEOGA of supporting the growth of wheat, a crop which produces the staff of life, is £400 per hectare in rough translation. The marginal cost of supporting the growth of tobacco, much of which is not a health risk only because it is unsmokable, is £3,000 per hectare. That is unacceptable, particularly as it has resulted in an increase in growth of the very kinds of tobacco which appear to be most damaging and dangerous, and which should not be put increasingly into intervention because they cannot be used.
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) rose --
I suggest that the same is true of the production of rice. Rice is about eight times as damaging to global warming as any similar product. Therefore, there is a particular reason for us to say that we do not wish to produce rice of a kind that we are unlikely to use. The japonica rice which we grow in the European Community has a limited market. Indica rice is more widely used.
The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow asked earlier about cane sugar producers. It is a curious view of developing countries which suggests that the European Community should increase, through subsidised competition, production of products which they can grow--perhaps their only product. So I shall seek a similar stabiliser regime for rice, and also for cotton, another product whose subsidised production within the Community does countries with much poorer populations out of markets.
I agree with the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow that we must continue to help cane sugar producers. I think it is reasonable, as we have cut the sums being offered to beet sugar producers within the Community, that we should offer them a similar deal. The arrangement is that we offer them the same price for the amounts which they are allowed to export into the Community as we offer Community farmers. It is not unreasonable that we should keep to that. They have benefited from increases even though they may not have had increases in their own production costs. It is reasonable to keep to that when we are making a cut.
I welcome the Commission's approach on prices, and on Mediterranean regimes. There is great pressure to
Column 790increase the amount of money for regimes on Mediterranean products. I shall resist the weakening of those packages.
I am worried about the Community's proposals on the rural world, because the modulation, as it is called, in favour of small farms is for very uneconomic small farms, with very few of them being in the United Kingdom and very few offering full-time support to a family in the countries in which they are located. It does farming no good to increase the support for such farms when it is wholly contrary to any sensible economic regime.
We ought to examine much more carefully those regimes in which we have a co -responsibility levy. I do not think it right for us to continue a system whereby we tax a farmer and reduce his price without reducing the price to the purchaser in the market. If we reduced the price to the purchaser, there would be a chance of increasing demand. We must move from co- responsibility levies to action on prices. It is much better for the farmer, must better for the market and must more likely to increase demand.
I believe that we have to look very carefully at the intervention prices with regard to milk. There is no doubt that substantial surpluses persist and are bound to increase, because the Community, contrary to the United Kingdom's wishes, has increased the quota by 1 per cent. It would be quite wrong of me not to allow our farmers to have that 1 per cent. if the farmers in every other country have it, but it would also be quite wrong of me to say that I consider it a sensible policy, in view of the increased amount of milk producton which is bound to ensue. I hope very much that I shall be able to announce the suggested revision of 1 per cent. very soon, but, of course, it is something that has to be agreed with the Commission under the regulation as passed.
With regard to beef, there needs to be a much greater cut in the guide price, particularly given our responsibilities in the general agreement on tariffs and trade round. Some of the suggestions for the use of the European Community carcass classification grid are an unnecessary burden on the industry. If it is necessary to improve the terms of trade and if it does not bring unnecessary burdens, that is one thing ; but if it is merely a matter of harmonisation and neatness, I believe the United Kingdom should oppose it. So we are looking very carefully at the detailed proposals in that connection. It now seems to be generally accepted that the sheep regime, which is a general one covering the whole of Europe, is good news for us, because it means that we have got rid of the differences which have been the cause of so much difficulty in our export markets. The basic price freeze is sensible, and there has been a notable improvement in the maximum guaranteed quantity arrangements.
Turning to the structures problems, I have no doubt that it was quite wrong of the Community not to accept the United Kingdom's case for no headage limits on the reimbursement for the compensatory amounts. There is no sense in suggesting that because it has been necessary for economic reasons to have a large flock in Scotland, for example, for some reason to do with the mathematical minds of those from other countries, there should be a headage limit--not because the farmer is rich but because he happens to live in a particularly poor area where a large number of sheep are needed to make any kind of sense and any kind of living.
Column 791We fought that battle very hard, and we got a response and a change which most people in this country said was much better than they had expected. Indeed, it was much better than the House had thought it would be from our discussions beforehand. But it was not as good as I wanted, because I did not and do not believe that this kind of headage limit is a proper way of dealing with these problems. It is discriminatory, albeit accidentally so, against the United Kingdom.
I have been able to announce that, when we come to review the figures next time, we shall not automatically carry through the HLCA levels fixed by the FEOGA proposals. We shall do as we have done in the past and look at the state of the industry and decide the levels of HLCAs on that basis, not on the basis of the artificial proposals which have now been agreed in the Council.
With regard to milk quotas, I have said that I hope that it will soon be possible to announce the allocation. That will depend upon how quickly the Commission is prepared to discuss the proposals which we have put to it, which are complex and seek to meet a wide range of problems that we feel can now be met.
With regard to the non-food use of agricultural products, I am always concerned when it is suggested that there is an automatic and easy answer to the problems of over-production. There are those on both sides of the House who have their own magic answer to the problem of surplus agricultural products. I look with a fairly leary eye on those who suggest that, if only we grew this or that for one or other purpose, we would meet the real problems.
We have to look very carefully at these propositions. I am keen on some of the proposals for the use of straw, for willow cultivation, and the like, but these have to be seen as marginal and must stand up. We cannot accept the proposition that has been put to us that, if we subsidise them totally and give them to industry free, they ought then to be turned into a competitive fuel. That does not seem to be sensible, and I do not think that any hon. Member would want it. I am therefore very careful about some of the proposals for non-food use of agricultural products, and we shall be looking with great care at the Commission's report and proposal, which will be linked to set-aside. The principle of new uses is acceptable, but I have doubts about it being tied to set-aside.
The discussions in the House are the prelude to some very tough bargaining. I am wholly committed to the principle of ensuring that British farmers shall compete with other farmers in the Community on a fair basis. I also believe that we have taken very large strides indeed in improving the common agricultural policy through the stabiliser regimes and the policies of Her Majesty's Government. I know that some of my hon. Friends want us to go further, and have some very tough words to say about some of the things that still happen or are still budgeted for in the Community. I agree with much of what they say. I want to go much further down the road of ensuring that food is not destroyed ; although that is a minor part of the budget, it is still too great. I want to go much further down the road of making sure that we do not grow food for which there is no market, and of dealing with some of the Mediterranean products, in particular where there is an indefensible amount of wastage. To that can be added the question of fraud, which is widespread. That is why we have taken the toughest
Column 792measures in support of the Commission and have refused to support the watering-down proposals that have been presented by other people. I believe that fraud must be prosecuted wherever it occurs, whether abroad or at home. I shall be as tough on the fraud that takes place in this country--we have reported some items of that--as on the fraud that takes place elsewhere. I am suspicious that Greece has announced that there is no fraud in that country at all.
I believe that we can at least claim that the Government have presided over the largest reform there has been in the common agricultural policy, and very much greater reform than anybody thought was possible. There is no doubt that most other countries in the Community have now come to accept what was a United Kingdom initiative--that is, a common agricultural policy increasingly designed to meet supply with demand rather than supply with surplus. We must keep on with this. We are pleased that the Commission is proposing measures which in large part support those changes. I ask my hon. Friends, and indeed many hon. Members in all parts of the House, to give me the opportunity of saying that we have complete support in the battle to make sure that our farmers have a fair deal.
Dr. David Clark (South Shields) : I found the Minister's speech disappointing. I suspect that hon. Members, when they go back to their constituencies, will find that their constituents found it somewhat disappointing.
Today, we are debating agriculture in Europe against a rapidly changing political background. The Communist parties of eastern Europe are calling for multi-party states. Apartheid is perhaps beginning to crumble in South Africa. The Minister has just come back from Berlin and I am sure that he viewed with great pleasure the crumbling of the Berlin wall. I am sure that many hon. Members share my view that, against all these momentous changes, the iniquitous structure of the common agricultural policy probably remains the last great untouched folly in the world. It is certainly of that seriousness.
Before we discuss the various aspects of agriculture, I shall briefly remind the House, yet again--it is important to do so--of the effect of the CAP on the British people. In spite of the progress that I concede has been made, the CAP is a costly folly. I checked the figures for the end of the year. The price of butter in the EC is almost double the world price. We pay 50 per cent. more than we should for beef and sugar, and 40 per cent. more for skimmed milk--at a time when even the most widely respected opinions believe that world prices will fall again and, therefore, the differential will increase.
In 1988, the Treasury estimated that the average household of four in the United Kingdom spent over £10.50 a week more than they should have done on purchasing food. The semi-official National Consumer Council estimated that the figure had gone up to £13.50 and the most recent survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that I have seen puts the subsidy that the British consumer has to pay for food at no less than £17.50 a week. That is far too much. Therefore, we go along with the Minister and support him in his endeavours to ensure that the Commission's proposals for price freezing are upheld.
Column 793That is absolutely vital. Equally, the maintenance of stabilisers is essential. On those issues the Minister has our support. The key factor in the common agricultural policy and the reason why I describe it as crazy is that it is not only the consumer who loses but the farmer. For every £1 that goes to the farmer, about £2 goes for intervention and dumping on the world market. How can that possibly be justified? Export refunds have reached astronomical levels. In spite of the efforts of the Commission, export refunds for dairy products alone last year were only marginally below the figure for 1988, the worst year ever.
Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood) : The hon. Gentleman talks about his concern for farmers and he knows of my close association with the land. Will he say what his party intends to do if it ever comes to power? Will it nationalise land? How will it pay for it? Will it pay for it through junk bonds or when resources allow?
Dr. Clark : As a farmer, the hon. Gentleman knows that he has thrown out a canard. The Labour party has no intention of nationalising farmland and that has not been in a Labour party manifesto since the war. I wish that the hon. Gentleman would stop trying to spread that rumour and cause alarm. We know why he does it : we have noted the dramatic fall in support for the Conservative party among the farming industry and the growth in its support for the Labour party.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : It is appropriate to make the point that a few days ago the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) seemed to be queueing up to have his land taken over for opencast mining. My hon. Friend talks about the cost of intervention and the fact that much of the vast sum spent does not go to the farmer. My hon. Friend will be aware that throughout Europe there has been grave anxiety about the amount of fraud and corruption in the intervention processes, and that anxiety is relevant to the United Kingdom. As the Minister knows, in Britain fraud and criminal action have been the subject of confession on television and no one has been prosecuted in such cases.
I note in the documents that we are discussing--there is a huge pile-- little about specific action to reduce export refunds. In the Treasury's public expenditure paper last week, there was provision for a 40 per cent. increase in intervention buying in the United Kingdom, from £1,102 million in 1988-89 to £1,540 million in 1992-93. That is a staggering figure. Will the Minister explain why he is planning for such a vast increase in intervention buying which will be paid for by the British consumer and taxpayer?
We have a right to know why that increase is being budgeted for when we are told that the surpluses are going. The surpluses may well be going, but they are going to other countries--often wrecking Third-world markets--with huge subsidies paid for by the British and European taxpayers. Is that why the budget has been increased?
Mr. Teddy Taylor : Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that the main reason for these increases is simply that we have transferred spending from the Common Market to national Governments such as Britain's as a means of cutting Common Market spending?
Mr. Gummer : Surely, one advantage of transferring a wasteful expenditure such as this to national Governments is that some national Governments, who do not contribute to the European Community common agricultural fund because they are net gainers from it, will begin to be more aware of exactly what the hon. Gentleman says, with which I agree. Therefore, it is not a disadvantage but an advantage, because we are aware of the expenditure, as we contribute significantly to the funds. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is part of our battle against what we both agree is an unacceptable fact.
Dr. Clark : I accept the right hon. Gentleman's valid point. I am sure that he agrees that we must tackle the problem. I am disappointed that we are expecting a 40 per cent. increase in expenditure in this country when we were already spending quite a lot on intervention buying.
Apart from the general CAP, this country's farmers suffer enormously from the Government's economic policies. We have heard from hon. Members on both sides of the House the overriding public concern of farmers ; getting the devaluation of the green pound. However, that is only part of the problem ; the other part involves inflation and high interest rates which are affecting our economy. The farming industry, often at the exhortations of Conservative farming Ministers, invested heavily in the early years of the last decade. They are now having to bear the price of that policy and the Government's one-club approach to the economy : high interest rates. Last year, British agriculture had to pay about £1,000 million in debt repayments alone--an increase of almost one third over the previous year. I stress that the high interest economy which the Government pursue is shoving farming up to its neck in debts. The sooner we get away from such an approach, the better.
Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West) : While the hon. Gentleman expresses concern for the increase in farmers' costs--I accept the answer that he gave to my hon. friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart)--will he reflect a little on the extra costs that some Socialist-controlled local authorities are considering : rating agricultural land? Is that to be part of a future Labour Government's policy? Would a future Labour Government rate agricultural land and add further to the costs borne by farmers?
Dr. Clark : I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I thought that the Government's policy was to abolish the rating system and go over to the poll tax. We conducted a little exercise and found out that the poll tax will be particularly hard on farming. We checked a farm in Copeland where rates are currently about £200 a year. As the hon. Gentleman knows, farmers pay rates on their domestic houses. Under the new situation, instead of paying £200, the three adults living on that farm, judging
Column 795by the probable level of poll tax, will pay £1,000 a year. That is my riposte to the hon. Gentleman. The poll tax will not help farmers.
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland) asked a direct question. Does the hon. Gentleman now publicly state that the Labour party, if ever returned to office, would not rate agricultural land?
Dr. Clark : Let us be blunt--I can say categorically to the Minister that that was not in the Labour party's manifesto at the last election, and will not be in the Labour party manifesto at the next election. Let us get that quite clear. I do not think that I have fudged that issue.
It is interesting that many farmers share the views of Mr. Bill Chrystal, the chairman of the Durham and North Yorkshire branch of the National Farmers Union, who wrote an open letter to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to complain about the continuing failure of the Government to tackle the problems of British agriculture, their failure to devalue the green pound and about high interest rates. In that open letter, he went on to say that the Government
"contributes to the ruin of many farmers if British farmers were able to enjoy French interest rates"
the situation would be greatly improved.
Unfortunately for Mr. Chrystal and for British farmers we do not have the benefit of a Socialist Government, as the French have, but I say, "Take heart, Mr. Chrystal--it won't be long before we have a Labour Government"-- and then British farmers will have a fair deal, as they have always had from a Labour Government.
When we press the Minister on all the points and difficulties with Europe, he always says that he cannot get agreement with the Council of Agriculture Ministers. Of course we understand that, but does not the Minister appreciate that this repeated failure to protect the interests of consumers and farmers in negotiations does not help anyone?
The Minister's offensive attitude towards food from other countries causes a great deal of difficulty with his overseas counterparts. British food is of a high quality, but so is that of our competitors. I usually choose British food, but there are occasions when I do not. For example, if I am faced with a choice in a shop of a British apple, or a New Zealand apple, I normally choose the New Zealand apple, for the simple reason that I know that the latter will not have been treated with alar--the carcinogenic pesticide. Other countries often produce food of the same standard that we produce.
Mr. Gummer : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that I shall spend a great deal of time pointing out to British farmers that he has now made a statement contrary to scientific advice. He has undermined the position of farmers in this country and shown that farmers would get from a Labour Government a Minister who would bash Britain to push the views of food faddists, on no scientific grounds at all. That would lead to a disruption of British industry and the British industrial base--farming in this country--and the hon. Gentleman must understand that he has now said that he would back the food faddists against the British farmer.
Column 796said, and not what the Minister said that I said. I can assure British consumers that from the Labour party and a Labour Government they will get alar-free apples.
Does not the Minister understand that when he makes his histrionic and jingoistic speeches at formal functions, denigrating the quality of food from our European neighbours, he causes great offence? The House might not understand what I mean by that. I remind hon. Members that the Minister has a habit of going to functions, and berating his hosts in his after-dinner, or after-lunch comments, for daring to provide, for example, New Zealand butter with the soup rolls. Then he reaches down and produces a white polythene bag. Out of the bag he produces European food products, bought at a nearby supermarket by his hapless political assistant. I point out that the Minister cannot buy them, because he is attending the synod.
There is a moral in this. As each item of foreign food is drawn out of the bag, it is accompanied by extravagant and unusually derogatory comments by the Minister, with the unending message that the food is inferior to that produced in Britain. Of course, that is the Minister's opinion, and he has every right to say that, but does he not understand that those gratuitous insults cause offence and are heard by foreign agricultural attache s, who speedily relay the Minister's attitude back to their governments?
In all seriousness, I sincerely counsel the Minister that that is not the most effective way to make friends and influence people, and that is important for the interests of British consumers and farmers when he goes to negotiations. I hope that he will bear that in mind.
Mr. Gummer : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that it is better to have a Minister who stands up for British products and who says that he does not believe in buying British unless it is best, but when it is best we must stand up for it and fight for it. One of our problems is that too many people think that something that comes from abroad is better than goods we produce at home. Britain produces the best apples. They are entirely safe, and the fact that the hon. Gentleman will not eat them shows that he does not have any taste, and that he would not make a Minister of Agriculture.
Mr. Gill : Before the hon. Gentleman throws any more gratuitous insults at the Minister, would he care to consider the damage that he has already done in this debate to the British apple industry? Does he imagine that he will have any friends left in that industry?
Perhaps we can now move on to another aspect of the subject, and develop the reasons why the Minister has failed yet again. In the past two weeks we have seen other instances when the Minister failed to carry his ministerial colleagues in Europe with him--the banning of the imports of British cattle for six months, due to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and the Minister's failure to persuade the West German Government to lift the ban on imported beef. Those are two recent examples of the Minister's failure.