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House of Commons

Thursday 19 April 1990

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker : We have not started yet.


Birmingham City Council

(No. 2) Bill-- (By Order) Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question proposed [26 February],

That the Bill be now considered.

Debate further adjourned till Thursday 26 April.

River Tees Barrage and Crossing Bill

[Lords] (By Order) Read a Second time, and committed.

Mr. Speaker : As the next 13 Bills set down for Second Reading have blocking motions, with the leave of the House I shall put them as a single group.

Adelphi Estate Bill

(By Order)

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question proposed [27 February],

That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Debate further adjourned till Thursday 26 April.

Cattewater Reclamation Bill

(By Order)

London Local Authorities (No. 2) Bill

[Lords] (By Order)

Clyde Port Authority Bill

(By Order)

Shard Bridge Bill

(By Order)

Vale of Glamorgan (Barry Harbour) Bill

[Lords] (By Order)

London Docklands Railway Bill

(By Order)

London Underground (Victoria) Bill

(By Order)

London Regional Transport (Penalty Fares) Bill

(By Order)

London Underground Bill

(By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 26 April.

Exmouth Docks Bill

(By Order)

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question proposed [29 March],

That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Debate further adjourned till Thursday 26 April.

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Great Yarmouth Port Authority Bill

[Lords] (By Order)

Heathrow Express Railways Bill

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

To be read a Second time on Thursday 26 April.

Oral Answers to Questions

Mr. Dalyell : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. By opting to go to Sandringham this afternoon rather than being in his place for Agriculture Question Time in the House of Commons, has not the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food got his priorities wrong? I admire much of the work of Prince Charles, and I have been a staunch supporter in difficult times of the European Community, but does the House agree that it is deeply unhelpful that the heir to the throne and a European Commissioner should consider that their business, however interesting and praiseworthy, should take precedence over a Minister's duty to be in the House of Commons for his own Question Time?

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry) : Further to that point of orde Mr. Speaker. I was going to explain in answer to the first question the reasons for my right hon. Friend's absence. As the House will recall, this Question Time was originally fixed for 5 April and my right hon. Friend, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and two European Commissioners--for agriculture and for environmental affairs--had a long- standing engagement today. My right hon. Friend hopes that the House will understand the importance of his keeping that engagement to deal with extremely important matters.

Mr. Speaker : I think we should get on.


Beef Industry

1. Mr. Alex Carlile : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the present state of the beef industry.

Mr. Curry : The beef breeding herd is at its highest level for a decade. Last year there was a rise of 9 per cent. over 1988.

Mr. Carlile : Under European Community rules, the Government could pay up to £71.37 per cow in hill livestock compensatory allowance. At the moment they are paying merely £54.50. Why will not the Government support hill farmers to the hilt when their incomes are depressed largely as a result of Government policy?

Mr. Curry : The Government support hill livestock producers very substantially. We recently increased the hill livestock compensatory allowance for sheep producers and we judged that that was the best place to put a limited resource. The hon. and learned Gentleman will recall that last year we increased the suckler cow premium by 42 per cent. and extended it to smaller farmers. That particularly

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affects beet producers, 60 per cent. of whom are in less-favoured areas. We direct £50 million a year in HLCAs to beef producers in the uplands. So we have nothing to apologise for in our support of the beef industry.

Sir Hector Monro : Does my hon. Friend agree that the increase in the suckler cow subsidy does much to improve confidence in the beef industry? As rearing hill calves is a long-term project, will he give as early warning as possible about the future of the HLCAs for next year so that farmers can plan with confidence?

Mr. Curry : I take heed of my hon. Friend's comments. The fact that we have to negotiate in Brussels means that sometimes we cannot give as much warning as we should like because negotiations are delayed. It is certainly true that we have at heart the welfare of those beef producers.

Dr. David Clark : As the issue dominating the beef industry is mad cow disease, why do the Government refuse to implement the recommendation of their own Tyrrell working party and undertake a random sample of dead cows at slaughterhouses to ascertain the extent of mad cow disease in the British herd?

Mr. Curry : The reason is that the measures that we have taken are more effective. We maintain extremely effective controls, and many of our actions have gone beyond the recommendations of our scientific advisers. We believe that the precautionary approach is right. We have done everything possible to safeguard public health and have gone beyond many of the recommendations made in that respect.

Food Hygiene

2. Mr. Simon Coombs : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the hygiene standards of British food resulting from the Food Safety Bill and those of food from other European Community countries.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Maclean) : The Food Safety Bill is ajoint initiative between my Department and the Department of Health. Once the Bill and various subsidiary regulations are in place, we will have a comprehensive and flexible framework in controls, equal to the very best in the world.

Mr. Coombs : My hon. Friend and the whole House will be aware that the Food Safety Bill creates a framework for a mass of secondary legislation in the form of regulations on food safety. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that he will consult widely and thoroughly on all the regulations before they and the Bill become law to ensure that British food continues to be as safe and wholesome as any in the world?

Mr. Maclean : As my hon. Friend knows, the Bill allows us to consult on a wide variety of regulations and I can give the House the assurance that he seeks. We will consult widely on the regulations that will be required as the Bill becomes law. We shall conduct those negotiations and consultations during the summer. I thank the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) for his kind comments about the Bill in an article in the Financial Times last week.

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Dr. David Clark : If food hygiene standards in Britain are as high as the Minister says, why has food poisoning increased fivefold since the Government took office?

Mr. Maclean : It is strange for the hon. Gentleman suddenly to attribute food poisoning to the Government taking office. That is quite bogus and the correlation cannot be made. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is so.

Sugar Beet

3. Mr. John Marshall : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement about the future of the United Kingdom sugar beet industry.

Mr. Curry : The United Kingdom sugar beet industry grows and processes about half the United Kingdom's sugar requirements. We will seek to ensure that British sugar interests are defended in the forthcoming review of the Community's support arrangements.

Mr. Marshall : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is in the British interest that British Sugar should remain a British-owned company? Does he agree that foreign acquisition of it would be bad for employment and bad for British sugar beet growers?

Mr. Curry : The ownership of British Sugar is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Office of Fair Trading. My function is to ensure that the interests of British beet farmers and British beet production are safeguarded. I shall pay close attention to that in the negotiations.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Has the Minister discussed the representations concerning the future of the British sugar beet industry with the Chairman of the Select Committee on Agriculture?

Mr. Curry : No, Sir.

Sir William Clark : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government intend to continue to import the present tonnages of cane sugar?

Mr. Curry : Yes, I can give that assurance. The importation of 1.3 million tonnes of cane sugar from the developing countries is important to the United Kingdom. It constitutes half our supply and a major outlet for cane producers. Next month, I shall address the ministerial meeting of the African, Caribbean and Pacific producers on precisely that subject.


4. Mr. Hardy : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has met poultry farmers to discuss the problem of salmonella poisoning during the last six months.

Mr. Maclean : Ministers and officials at my Department have, on a number of occasions, met and corresponded with individual poultry farmers and organisations on matters relating to salmonella.

Mr. Hardy : Is the Minister fully aware of the serious anxiety and vulnerability of most egg producers? Is not their critical position compounded by the importation of

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foreign eggs, which may be dumped? Although they are subject to testing, is he aware that the rest of the batch of eggs not taken for testing will have been eaten long before the results of the test are known? Is not that ridiculous?

Mr. Maclean : The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, as has been stated many times in the House, we do not have the power to ban the importation of foreign eggs. Nevertheless, we have followed--and are keen to follow--the Select Committee's advice that we should redouble our efforts in the EC to achieve EC-wide salmonella controls. I am pleased to tell the House that those negotiations are proceeding apace. We expect to hear proposals from the Commission in May with a view to their being completed this year. That is the best safeguard that we can give to our producers and consumers.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor : Notwithstanding my hon. Friend's excellent efforts to achieve EC-wide safeguards against salmonella, will he bear in mind the fact that other European countries have a far lower standard of overall hygiene than we have? Will he ensure that nothing in the harmonisation process weakens the effects of the Food Safety Bill or the ability of the Government to safeguard our people against food poisoning?

Mr. Maclean : The criticism at present is that we are making too strenuous efforts to control aspects of food poisoning. We do not intend to weaken our efforts to protect our consumers, irrespective of what products they are eating. We shall be stressing in Europe the need for Europewide controls to be placed as effectively in other EC countries as they are placed here.

Mr. Lofthouse : What is the point of testing the eggs if the vast majority have already been eaten?

Mr. Maclean : Because we can take up the matter immediately with the Government of the egg-producing country concerned--as we did when we found salmonella in eight consignments of eggs--and that Government can take the necessary action. That is the extent of what we can do under existing salmonella controls and that is why we want better ones. I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that in the first two months of this year egg imports represented only 4 per cent. of eggs consumed. That is a small proportion of our egg supply.

Miss Emma Nicholson : Will the Minister reassure me that rare breeds of hens will be safeguarded? They may require a special regulation. Their gene banks are very important.

Mr. Maclean : I am delighted to give my hon. Friend that reassurance. There is no question of a special rare breed of bird being exterminated. However, I also give the House the assurance that anyone who sells eggs to the public for profit, whether those eggs come from rare brids or others, cannot expect to be exempt from the salmonella controls or from our public health measures.

Fishing Industry

5. Mr. Macdonald : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what recent representations he has received from representatives of the west coast of Scotland fishing industry.

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Mr. Curry : In response to concerns expressed by west coast fishermen, we have issued a consultation document on fisheries management on the west coast.

Mr. Macdonald : May I ask the Minister specifically about the proposal to allow the aggregation of licences? Will he take on board the concern expressed by west coast fishermen that that will simply mean that larger operations, usually on the east coast of Scotland, will buy up the smaller boats of the west coast? That will mean a loss of livelihood for west coast fishermen and will harm conservation in the long run.

Mr. Curry : I wish to get the terminology straight. The proposals that we have just announced are for the aggregation of capacity, not licences. Even if we then proceed to adopt a consultation document on the aggregation of entitlements, it will not concern licences as such. We are a long way from a transferable licence, although, as I have always made clear, it is an option. The aggregation of capacity is a limited measure which aims to get fishermen away from the tight straitjacket of being unable to increase tonnage or horsepower at all. Fishermen can now buy a bigger boat and obtain the catching capacity entitlement that goes with a boat of that size. Fishing entitlement aggregation would be a more radical measure and would push more in the direction of the rationalisation of the fleet. However, we are committed to consulting widely before introducing such a measure.

Mr. Salmond : Does the Minister understand that thousands of fish processing workers in the west of, and throughout, Scotland face a wage freeze in the current year? Does he appreciate that they are among the lowest-paid industrial workers in the country, in most cases earning £100 or less for a full week's work, at a time when inflation is pushing towards double digits? How long will it be before the Minister and his colleagues snap out of their complacency and introduce a crisis package of measures to stabilise the fortunes of the industry, onshore and offshore?

Mr. Curry : What the hon. Gentleman means by crisis package of measures to stabilise the industry is that we should simply give it more money ; that is his familiar theme. The action that we plan to take is, first, to make management more effective, with the series of measures that I outlined to the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) and, secondly, to tackle seriously the question of conservation. I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that workers in the west coast processing industry would be much worse off if we did not manage our fisheries to ensure that there was fish to catch in the future.


6. Mr. Thurnham : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has received any representations about the competitive position of bakers using north American grain in preference to European grain ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Curry : I have received no representations, but I am arguing for a reduction of the high levy imposed on north American wheat in the current price negotiations. The bread-making quality of home-produced wheat has

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improved to such an extent that we now use less than a tenth of the amount of imported grain that we were using 10 years ago.

Mr. Thurnham : Will my hon. Friend do his utmost to achieve a reduction in agriculture tariffs at the forthcoming GATT talks so that quality bakers, such as Warburtons in my constituency, no longer have to pay a levy of £100 a tonne on imported north American high protein grains?

Mr. Curry : We shall press to get levies down and the GATT talks will almost certainly result in a phased programme of cuts sustained over a number of years. Without that, I do not think that the GATT talks would succeed at all. I remind my hon. Friend that the stabiliser has produced three years of cuts in grain prices and that farmers are feeling the pinch. It is only fair to say that if we obtain the green pound devaluation for which we are aiming--in the United Kingdom, at least--grain prices will rise, which will put farmers on more equal terms with their competitors overseas.

Mr. Strang : Does the Minister accept that the major problem affecting competition with European grain producers is the enormous burden and disadvantage imposed on the home industry as a consequence of the gap between the green pound and sterling? Does he accept that the original proposal to cut the gap by one third is inadequate in relation to those commodities for which the difference is well over 10 per cent.?

Mr. Curry : The hon. Gentleman will see from the arrangements that were on the table when the price-fixing negotiations broke up a few weeks ago that the devaluation of one third had rather passed into history. We very much hope that when the negotiations resume, it will stay part of history.

Mr. Andy Stewart : As British millers and bakers are buying wheat at 30 per cent. less in real terms than they were five years ago, does my hon. Friend agree that it is about time they passed on some of their good fortune to their customers?

Mr. Curry : It is certainly true that the price of grain as a raw material for the bread maker has not increased recently. It is also true that we must strike a balance--that is what most politics is about--between the interests of the producer and the interests of the consumer. At the moment, it is the producers who believe that they face an injustice, and we are trying to correct that.

Eastern Europe

7. Mr. Barry Field : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the outcome of his discussions following his recent visits to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria.

Mr. Curry : The principal purpose of my right hon. Friend's visits to Poland, Czeckoslovakia and Bulgaria was to support political and economic reform in those countries and to seek export opportunities for British business men.

Mr. Field : As he is one of the foremost defenders of British fishing interests, will my hon. Friend allow me to congratulate him on organising a three-month course on

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fisheries management at Hull for Polish fisheries managers, at a cost to the British taxpayer of £133,000? Does my hon. Friend agree that, in view of the size of the eastern bloc fishing fleet and as trawlers no longer have to eavesdrop on boring ministerial conversations and can concentrate instead on fishing, it is important that Britain leads the way in showing the eastern bloc fleet how to conserve its stocks rather than continue to plunder them recklessly?

Mr. Curry : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The project that he mentioned is an example of the carefully targeted aid that we envisage for eastern Europe. On eastern European fisheries capacity, EC resources are shared out according to track record and there is no case for allowing east European vessels to fish Community waters. I have made it clear at a number of Fisheries Councils that we will not allow Soviet, Polish or other vessels into the North sea. The West German fleet underfishes by about one third of its capacity and there is room for East Germany to take some of that quota without seeking any general allocation at European level. Of course, some eastern European waters might be available for western fisheries if East Germany joins the European Community.

However, I completely agree with my hon. Friend ; we are not in the business of giving away a scarce resource, particularly to those who might not be most attentive to its conservation.

Mr. Andrew Welsh : Will the Minister give assurances that measures to help east European farmers will cause minimum disruption to the home industry, for example with regard to the bulk import of cheap fruit pulp? If the object of the exercise is to increase finance for east European farmers, would not it be more sensible to do that by fixing cross-border prices rather than by using the tariff system, which can cause great disruption to the home industry?

Mr. Curry : When proposals were made to give concessions under the generalised system of preferences to Poland and Hungary, the United Kingdom argued that they should be restricted. We have since had close discussions about careful monitoring of the price arrangements. We can sustain imports provided that the prices are genuine and not dumping prices. We are in touch with the Commission and we will ensure that aid is specific and limited, that it will not damage our industry and that we do not make a greater contribution than anyone else to the necessary process of liberalisation in eastern Europe.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell : During my right hon. Friend the Minister's extremely successful visit to eastern Europe, did he detect any enthusisam to revert to the old-fashioned and failed economic policies of socialism and communism, or did he find an enthusiasm to embrace many of the economic policies that our Government were the first to introduce in this country over the past 10 years?

Mr. Curry : I understand that when Belisarius reconquered Italy, he coined the phrase, "If you seek a desert, look around you". I think that my right hon. Friend the Minister looked around eastern Europe and saw that 40 years of socialism had had the same effect. He gained no impression of an anxiety to revert to communism, but of a considerable anxiety to learn some of the elements of capitalism.

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Farm Animal Welfare Council

8. Dr. Kim Howells : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what reports he is expecting from the Farm Animal Welfare Council.

Mr. Maclean : The Farm Animal Welfare Council has just started studies of the welfare of broiler chickens and of animals kept in extensive husbandry systems. I look forward to receiving the council's advice when this work has been completed.

Dr. Howells : The Minister will be aware that the main recommendation of the February 1990 report from the council was that recommendations in earlier reports, which are still outstanding, should be implemented. He has not implemented those recommendations. Will he ignore the February 1990 report like he ignored all the others? Will he continue to allow animals to be subjected to misery?

Mr. Maclean : The hon. Gentleman's remarks are unfair and wrong. We received two reports in February which we are currently consulting on and studying. We have accepted the overwhelming majority of FAWC recommendations and many of them have already been put into legislative effect. I hope to lay before the House shortly detailed regulations on the slaughter of red meat animals and later this year regulations on the welfare of horses at markets. The hon. Gentleman must be careful before he makes erroneous comments to the effect that we have ignored FAWC reports.

Mr. John Greenway : Does my hon. Friend agree that the acceptance of many FAWC recommendations has helped to ensure that this country has one of the best records on farm animal welfare in the European Community? In future changes in the welfare codes, will my hon. Friend try to ensure that those practices are extended, not just in this country, but throughout the European Community so that we do not export unacceptable husbandry practices?

Mr. Maclean : My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. When we consider welfare in this country and the excellent FAWC reports, we accept that it is becoming increasingly important to extend those provisions to other EC countries. That is why my right hon. Friend the Minister took a welfare initiative in the EC. We sent EC Commissioners a host of recommendations on animal welfare that we would like to be extended across the Community. If we like animals and believe in their welfare, it is not good enough simply to improve their lot in Britain and these islands ; the morality must extend overseas, too.

Mr. Wigley : Will the Minister confirm that FAWC has the right to inspect and to report on puppy farms which, in certain instances, have been the cause of considerable abuse? What is the Government's latest thinking on that matter and what do they intend to do to tighten controls in that area?

Mr. Maclean : The hon. Gentleman is right to be concerned about welfare on puppy farms. This is a matter for the Home Office, and I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department is currently considering what action can be taken. I shall certainly pass on to him the hon. Gentleman's concerns.

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Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Further to the previous question, will my hon. Friend take this issue seriously? There have been strong reports about puppy farming in west Wales and we have seen horrific photographs of emaciated dogs being cruelly treated. The matter causes great concern to my constituents and we need Government action immediately.

Mr. Maclean : Those of us who like animals, and especially those of us who love dogs, agree with my hon. Friend that action is required. That is why my hon. Friend at the Home Office is considering what action can be taken. Having heard the views expressed in the House today, I shall be pleased to confirm to my hon. Friend that the House wants action on this matter.

Mr. Ron Davies : May I remind the Minister that the February report on enforcement specifically recommended that the number of vets in the state veterinary service should be increased to allow them to discharge properly their responsibilities on animal welfare? Given that during the past 10 years the Government have reduced the number of vets in the state veterinary service by 25 per cent., yet, despite that, the Government still apparently have a commitment to animal welfare, will the Minister now undertake to accept that specific and direct recommendation in the FAWC enforcement report and ensure that the number of vets in the state veterinary service is increased?

Mr. Maclean : I have made it clear that, having just received those reports, we are currently considering all the recommendations and are consulting widely on them. The hon. Gentleman should not be obsessed merely with the numbers employed in the state veterinary service. He should be more concerned about how effectively and efficiently it is carrying out its work. I am delighted to be able to tell him that its efficiency and effectiveness has improved considerably. I am proud of the excellent job that it does in all aspects of animal welfare and in enforcing the regulations.

Sheep Farmers

9. Mr. David Nicholson : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what proposals he has to ensure that the cash flow of sheep farmers is improved in the next 12 months.

Mr. Curry : Our plans to pay two advances of sheep annual premium to producers in both less-favoured areas and other parts of the United Kingdom will help the cash flow of sheep farmers.

Mr. Nicholson : That reply was welcome, as was my hon. Friend's recent visit to my constituency, where he gave an excellent speech to a conference organised by the Exmoor Society and when he made the valid point that no honest Government could guarantee the income of every farmer, irrespective of the circumstances. Will he confirm that his Department gives the highest priority to providing incentives to farmers to remain on the uplands, because farmers are our best conservationists?

Mr. Curry : My hon. Friend is perfectly correct and I am grateful for his kind remarks, despite the fact that it was raining heavily in his constituency at that time. The Government put considerable resources into the uplands,

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but we cannot guarantee the livelihoods of all farmers there. However, it is clear that society is putting a higher and higher price on conservation of the countryside, and it is in our interests to encourage farmers to take advantage of that and to add to their fundamental role as food producers, the role of being the guardians of the countryside, as we all appreciate.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Does the Minister agree that the incomes of many sheep farmers are still being reduced because of the loss of stock and the worrying of stock by dogs? What is the Government's most recent estimate of the number of animals that are worried to death by dogs and how much does that cost farmers? Is not it high time that we had a proper dog registration scheme to encourage responsible dog owners and to stop some of the waste of animals' lives as a result of sheep worrying?

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