The Consolidated Fund Act 1991
The Community Charges (Substitute Setting) Act 1991
[Lords] (By Order) Order for further consideration, as amended, read.
To be considered on Tuesday 16 April at Seven o'clock.
(No. 3) Bill-- [Lords] (By Order) Orders for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second time on Thursday 18 April.
Mr. Secretary Lang presented a Bill to confirm a Provisional Order under section 7 of the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act 1936, relating to Tay Road Bridge and the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be considered upon Wednesday 27 March and to be printed. [Bill 121.]
1. Mr. David Shaw : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what future arrangements he will be making for monitoring the accuracy of food labelling as a result of information recently gained by his Department relating to orange juice.
7. Mr. Simon Coombs : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what future arrangements he will be making for monitoring the accuracy of food labelling as a result of his Department's recent information about the labelling of orange juice.
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Gummer) : My scientists analyse a wide range of foodstuffs for various reasons as part of our comprehensive programme of monitoring and surveillance. I will be following up the particular matter to which my hon. Friends refer with further sampling.
Mr. Shaw : I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his officials on the way in which this monitoring has been done and on the fact that some major mistakes have been identified. Members of the British public who, like me, enjoy a daily glass of orange juice and want it pure, undiluted and from a properly labelled carton are very grateful to him.
Mr. Gummer : I thank my hon. Friend for that. The fact is that this was a labelling and not a public health matter, but it is not acceptable that orange juice labelled pure and unadulterated should turn out to be rather less unadulterated than it should be.
Mr. Coombs : Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations on this matter? It will give the British public a great deal of reassurance to know that they have officials in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food continually on the watch to protect them from such serious abuse of the food labelling regulations. When may we expect to make further progress with food labelling regulations, finish the period of discussion with our European colleagues and introduce a more comprehensive system of food labelling regulations for fats, salt and sugar?
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend has always taken a great interest in this. I assure him that we are in the lead in matters to do with food labelling. The Food Advisory Committee has been doing work on this in Britain. Much of labelling is now in the European Community domain, of course, and we take a lead in the Community in ensuring that the public have clear labelling of what is in the products that they buy. It is not my intention to tell the public what they ought to eat ; it is my intention to allow them to choose for themselves--that is why they need proper labels.
Mr. Gummer : Existing rights of public access are preserved over land which is entered under the set-aside and environmentally sensitive areas schemes. Neither scheme imposes additional obligations as regards access, but the meadowland option of the related countryside premium scheme provides areas set aside for walking and quiet enjoyment by the public.
Mr. Bennett : Does the Minister agree that, as more than 10 million people enjoy walking as a pastime, at Easter and on other public holidays many honey spots in the countryside will be overused and peace and quiet will be denied to people going out to enjoy them? Is not there a good argument for increasing the number of parts of Britain to which people can gain access and spreading the money that people spend when they go out into the countryside? Will the Government try to incorporate in the set-aside and environmentally sensitive schemes some encouragement to farmers to improve access?
Mr. Gummer : I think that access is best improved by improving footpaths, bridleways and the like. We must also recognise that in all these areas a balance must be maintained. In our environmentally sensitive areas it is sometimes access that causes much of the problem. I cite for instance, the difficulties in the South Downs where access for people with dogs makes it extremely difficult to graze those areas in the way that would be desirable. I also remind the hon. Gentleman that problems in the Pennine Way now mean that in some cases and circumstances we are spending more there than on similar lengths of the M1.
Mr. Jopling : Is my right hon. Friend aware that, with the exception of the small areas that he mentioned, there is no particularly good reason why environmentally sensitive areas should have special access to the public, bearing in mind that huge areas of equally sensitive land often adjoin them? My right hon. Friend should concentrate on trying to expand the environmentally sensitive areas, which have been so successful.
Mr. Gummer : I am sure that my right hon. Friend will not mind my saying that such areas are his creation. The fact that the whole of Europe is copying Britain in creating such areas owes much to his perseverance in the Council of Ministers. I should like to see how best we can extend the scheme as time goes on. I emphasise my right hon. Friend's argument that access must often compete with other aspects of the countryside to achieve a balance. To conserve the countryside, we must sometimes restrict rather than extend access. Environmentally sensitive areas will work only if farmers can farm them properly, so we must ensure that the demands and needs of farming play their part in the balance between them.
Column 386farmer. I seek a system in the European Community in which each country will take a fair share of the amount of set -aside necessary. A voluntary scheme should set a target to be achieved within each country. A voluntary scheme means that farmers must be paid enough to make it possible for them to look after the land, which is in their interests and the wider interests of the country as a whole.
Mr. Boscawen : My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we must get the balance right in environmentally sensitive areas. In the Somerset levels, which I represent, there is a genuine need for a limited amount of access to see the birds and fauna there. However, if too many people want to come at once, as they often do, they will destroy the areas that we wish to protect.
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend is right. We have spent a lot of money and employed much manpower, especially in the Somerset levels, to try to achieve a balance between the needs of farming and those of wildlife. We have discovered that, by bringing both sides together, the level of water necessary turns out to be very different from that which many conservationists had thought. When one is trying to bring two groups together in such a way, it must be realised that total access to the general public cannot always be afforded if wildlife is to be protected. It is important to achieve a balance. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is among the first to say that he wants not access which destroys the countryside but access which opens it up.
Mr. David Clark : Has the Minister seen the report published today by the national parks review panel, in which he is urged to introduce incentives and payments systems for environmentally friendly farming and public access in all our national parks? Will he do so?
Mr. Gummer : I am not someone who, having read part of a report, immediately jumps to the Dispatch Box to say what he intends to do about it. First, I want to see what the Countryside Commission thinks about the report, as it was received only today. Secondly, the Secretary of State for the Environment and I will want to work out how best to react to the Countryside Commission's proposals. I am not someone who believes that the future of the countryside can be decided by immediate party-political reactions.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry) : Since 1979 the price of food has fallen by more than 18 per cent. relative to the retail prices index.
Column 387realise, however, that those efforts demand a fair return for farmers who put both work and capital into their enterprises to bring about that success?
Mr. Curry : I agree with my hon. Friend that the factor that will most benefit the farmer is for us to get on top of inflation. The farmer makes a contribution towards defeating inflation because of the performance of food prices. It is also true that if the farmer wishes to benefit more from consumer spending, the more he can produce processed products that the consumer wants to buy, the better. Nobody goes into a a shop to buy sheep-- they go to buy meat products and the more the farmer can get into that business, the more he will benefit from his own primary production.
Farmers may well have been contributing to the lowering of inflation. That is unfortunate for them in that they do not receive what they consider to be a proper rate of return. Does my hon. Friend agree that they should therefore concentrate their efforts on getting value added and adding some sex appeal to the crops that they sell?
Mr. Curry : It is true that people selling unbranded commodities will never receive the same return from them as the people who take the commodity, transform it, package it and give it new appeal. It is equally true that the consumer clearly wants the processed convenience product. The more that farmers can get into that business through greater collaborative effort and greater links with the retail trade, the more they will realise the benefits of their own primary production.
Mr. Beggs : Does the Minister accept that the price paid to the producers--farmers--is an extremely low percentage of the price paid by consumers? Does he also accept that unless a proper check is kept on the prices paid to producers there will inevitably be a shortfall in production, which will put prices to consumers through the ceiling? Will he endeavour to assist farmers in marketing their produce so that they can gain more for the agricultural produce of their farms?
Mr. Curry : We certainly try to take our decisions in European negotiations and in the Ministry with a view to helping British farmers get their products on the table in front of British housewives and other people. It is also true that the reason for lower returns in agriculture is the persistence of over-supply in the marketplace. The greatest service that we can do for a farmer is to conquer the problem of over-supply and inflation. When we can do that, the farmer will be able to realise his returns much more easily.
Mr. Skinner : Is the Minister aware that, notwithstanding the prices to which he refers, for the first time in the 21 years I have been a Member of Parliament, the farmers and farm workers in Bolsover, Derbyshire and other parts of the country are fed up to the back teeth with the Government and the common agricultural policy? They used to paint the grass blue in Bolsover at election time, but they have said that they will never do it again.
Mr. Curry : The index of producer prices of agricultural products increased at an average annual rate of 3.6 per cent. between 1979 and 1990, compared with 7.5 per cent. for all items in the retail prices index.
Mr. Alexander : Does my hon. Friend agree that the figures that he has produced show how essential it is, not least for the farmers in Bolsover, that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer continues with policies that will bear down on inflation? When my hon. Friend goes to Brussels and talks to Commissioner MacSharry, will he give him those figures and ensure that if there is any reform of the common agricultural policy, as is proposed, the returns to British farmers all over the country will not be further reduced as a result?
Mr. Curry : My right hon. Friend and I will be in Brussels next Monday and Tuesday, when no doubt these subjects will be on the agenda. We agree with my hon. Friend. We have made it clear to Mr. MacSharry and our colleagues that, although we agree that changes must be made and that prices must fall closer to those of the marketplace, agriculture should be based on commercially viable farms and the United Kingdom farmer should not be discriminated against merely because he is efficient, modern and effective.
Mr. Curry : Incomes will not be buoyant if the market is constantly over-supplied. If farmers wish to achieve better returns, the Government must conquer inflation and over-supply and take more interest in producing what the consumer wants in the form that the consumer wants it. If the consumer wants products that the farmer thinks inappropriate, it is the farmer and not the consumer who is wrong. There is only one market and it must deliver what the consumer wants.
Mr. Marland : I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about the drop in farm gate prices. Will he confirm that to raise farm gate prices farmers must add more value to their products? Will he further confirm that grant aid and advice is available from the Ministry to encourage and help farmers to find different ways of adding value to their products to make them more acceptable in the marketplace?
Mr. Curry : Farmers should certainly use all the help that is available. I do not wish to transform agriculture into some form of cottage industry producing pies and salami, but unless farmers get further down the food chain and produce goods that people want by adding value on the farm, they will be stuck with producing unbranded raw materials. As I said, people do not go into supermarkets to buy sheep--they buy products, which is what the farmer must produce.
Mr. Mitchell : In that case, it will be very depressed. Does the Minister recognise that the whole of the British fishing industry is crying out for a decommissioning scheme? Does he not recognise that that is the most effective contribution that he can make to conservation and that unless the Government introduce a proper conservation programme we shall get more daft Euro-measures imposed on us like the eight-day lay-off?
Mr. Curry : I thank the hon. Gentleman for any influence that he may have had on the letter that I received this morning from the Grimsby fish producer organisation thanking us for our excellent efforts in producing the gear option as an alternative to the tie-up scheme.
A decommissioning scheme is not the most effective method. Taking out old boats would be bad value and taking out new boats would be bad economics. If some boats are taken out under a decommissioning scheme, the remaining boats must be controlled to prevent them from simply mopping up all the additional effort ; otherwise, there would have to be a new system of regulation, including compulsory tie-ups for longer periods than those that we unfortunately have at present.
Mr. John Townend : I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that I do not welcome his remarks on a decommissioning scheme, but what other initiatives will he take to reduce the fishing effort? In particular, will he consider making it illegal for prawn fishermen to carry two sizes of net--70 mm and 90 mm--as that makes conservation enforcement practically impossible?
Mr. Curry : We have just completed a consultation with the industry. We considered whether we should introduce a square mesh panel on nets used for the nephrops fishery. We suggested a 70 mm square panel, but the industry said that it would like to go further. I shall do all that I can to go as far as possible so that we do not catch so many small round fish in the nephrops fishery. That is an important conservation measure.
Mr. Salmond : Does the Minister accept that he is totally isolated from the fishing community in his opposition to decommissioning and in his support for the eight-day tie-up? Does he understand that even members of the Conservative party are embarrassed by the contemptuous attitude that he showed to Scottish fishermen during the eight-day tie-up debate? When will there be a reversal of policy to support decommissioning and to oppose the life-threatening eight-day tie-up?
Mr. Curry : To be isolated is not necessarily to be wrong--and I do not accept that I am isolated. The hon. Gentleman's remarks about the previous debate are silly. He suggests that fishermen want to be able to fish exactly as they have always fished and yet to have conservation. That cannot be delivered.
Column 390If fishermen genuinely want conservation, they can take their suggestions about mesh sizes further forward. I shall always listen to them. Since I have been a fisheries Minister, not one hon. Member who has asked to bring a delegation of fishermen to see me has ever been refused. That offer remains open.
Mr. Morley : The Minister knows very well that he is isolated on the decommissioning issue in terms both of the industry and of Europe. The revision of the common fisheries policy provides an opportunity to use the available structural funds to finance a proper decommissioning scheme which takes account of all the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. Will he take the opportunity to tap into that funding? Will he also use the opportunity offered by the review of regional policies to extend the Hague preference south from Bridlington to include all the east coast ports?
Mr. Curry : I know that the Hague preference is a sensitive issue. It is designed for the northern communities. The Scottish industry attaches particular importance to it. Even the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) would agree that it is particularly important to the Scottish industry and to communities in northern England.
I realise that the Hague preference causes difficulties. As I am anxious that the review of the fisheries policy should be a limited review--I do not want the common fisheries policy to be busted open, because we benefit greatly from it--I should hesitate before introducing that element into the discussions, as it would encourage other people to seek a wider review than we think would be helpful.
6. Mr. Maclennan : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what recent discussions he has had with British farmers about the future of the sheep industry ; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Maclennan : How does the Minister propose to arrest the depressing erosion of incomes of hill and upland farms which are dependent upon the sheep industry? Will he do three things? Will he announce his proposals to end the sheepmeat variable premium? Will he support a private storage scheme to ease the undoubted danger of fluctuations occuring in the market following the ending of the variable premium scheme? May we have a five-year continuance of the wool guarantee, as wool constitutes some 14 per cent. of the incomes of sheep farmers in the hills and uplands?
Mr. Curry : We retain the option to accelerate the phase-out of the variable premium. When we take that decision, we shall certainly bear in mind the importance of accelerating our exports and getting rid of the clawback.
Giving a five-year guarantee is not a practical proposition. We recently increased the hill livestock compensatory allowances. About £400 million per year goes into the British sheep industry as a whole, a large proportion of it to the less-favoured areas. We recently increased HLCAs by £142 million. We have a system of market support in the livestock sector which costs us £800
Column 391million per year. That is a great deal of taxpayers' money to support the industry. We are committed to that industry.
Mr. Barry Field : Does my hon. Friend accept that farmers are worried about the difference between the price that they get at market for their sheep for slaughter and the price that the housewife has to pay? Does he accept that, because of the demise of high street butcheries, farmers cannot easily sell their products to supermarkets, which refuse to take their produce locally? Will my hon. Friend's Department investigate that aspect of the red meat trade?
Mr. Curry : I have always found that when the farmers have some complaint about the retail sector, it is best to get the Women's Farming Union on to the matter. It appears to be the last paramilitary body in Britain and is extremely effective. I would hesitate to tell shops where to do their purchasing.
Mr. Pike : The Minister will know that sheep farmers are very unhappy about the severe financial difficulties in which they find themselves at present and are concerned about the Government's policy towards their industry. Will he assure them that there will be no repetition of the French lamb wars which, understandably, caused a major public outcry in Britain last year?
Mr. Curry : I hope that I have a certain amount of authority at the Ministry, but I am not sure that my writ extends to the behaviour of French farmers. I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that I attended a Paris show recently especially to advertise the qualities of British lamb on our stand there. We shall do our best to put our producers in touch with French buyers when we can supply what they want and we shall continue insistently to make it known to the French Government that we expect free trade for our product. Despite all the problems, we exported more live lambs to France last year than the year before.
Mr. Gummer : The Government continue to press for reforms of the common agricultural policy that will make European Community agriculture more market oriented, reduce budget costs, lead to closer integration between agricultural and environmental policies and apply fairly throughout the Community.
Mr. Arnold : My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on the considerable efforts that he is putting into securing reform of the CAP. Will he make every effort to ensure, in any reforms that are achieved, that the British farmer will not be disadvantaged in relation to farmers on the continent?
Column 392for them to be penalised a second time while other farmers failed to go through such a revolution. That is why we so utterly oppose the proposals that Mr. MacSharry has put before the Council.
Mr. Butler : Whatever reforms are adopted, will my right hon. Friend ensure that British farmers are not the only ones who have to stick by the rules and that farming practices throughout the Community are monitored properly?
Mr. Gummer : The most important thing is to get people to accept the tough side of a world, in which surplus production bears so heavily on farmers' incomes--that everybody must obey the same rules. We are considering carefully whether there are better ways in which to monitor observance of the rules throughout the Community and, indeed, in Britain, so that farmers can feel that there is a level playing field and a fair deal for all.
Mr. John D. Taylor : Does the Minister agree that some sectors of agriculture require reform more urgently than others? Does he accept that the growth in lamb production has reached the stage at which some constraints are urgently needed and is he sympathetic to the idea of quotas in the sheep sector?
Mr. Gummer : I do not think that quotas would be a good thing in general or in the United Kingdom in particular. In the past two or three years there has been an advance beyond sense in the number of lambs produced in some countries, but what is needed is a fair deal in the European Community to ensure that parts of the Community that produce excellent lambs should be able to continue to do so. As British lamb is, without doubt, the best in the world, we want it to continue to be produced and sold and we will not have those activities stopped by those who do not like the competition.
Dr. David Clark : May I associate the Opposition with the objectives outlined by the Minister in his initial answer to the question about reform of the CAP? Will he publish the Government's proposals for the CAP so that we can at least have the debate on our terms, not on the European Commissioners' terms?
Mr. Gummer : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for our policy, but the most important thing is that we should have a debate in the Council and on the Council's terms rather than having debates outside the Council to pat ourselves on the back.
My job is to get the Community to agree to a reform package. I do not think that the best way to do that is to suggest to the Community that it must accept some prepackaged presentation from this country. My job is to get people on our side. The opportunity for the hon. Gentleman and me to argue with each other here is not as important as the opportunity for both of us to achieve our joint desires in the Council. In those circumstances, the hon. Gentleman must accept that it is better to act through the Council which, in this area, has the authority.
Column 393Mr. Gummer : Self-sufficiency in foods that can be produced in the United Kingdom was 71 per cent. in 1979-80, 80 per cent. in 1984-85 and about 74 per cent. in 1989-90.
Mr. Howell : I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Will he acknowledge the great contribution that British agriculture makes to the economy in general and the special contribution that is made by the cereals sector? Will he ensure that, in any future GATT negotiations, the aggressive attitude of the Americans is kept well in check?
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend could not say other than that, on this point, I have been as aggressive as any of the American negotiators. European farmers--British farmers among them--must have equal access to world markets. I will not accept measures that would improve the position of the United States but reduce the opportunities for Europe. However, concentration on self-sufficiency could easily hide the fact that we need to increase our sales in the rest of Europe, as well as the fact that our home market today is the whole of Europe, not merely the United Kingdom.
Mr. Cryer : Is not the balance of trade deficit in agricultural products between the United Kingdom and the rest of the Common Market about £5,000 million? Does not it demonstrate that, for the United Kingdom, the CAP has been a ghastly and costly failure? That is especially so in view of the fact that, since 1979, the Government have contributed about £14,000 million under the CAP. Does not this demonstrate the need for reform of the CAP as a matter of drastic urgency and will the Government do something about that? Secondly, could not British farmers contribute more to the production of the nation's food?
Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman has got his facts the wrong way round. The common agricultural policy has enabled us to produce a great deal more of the food that we need. However, the consumers of Britain want choice. The hon. Gentleman said that the balance of trade deficit in agricultural products is £5,000 million, but the foods that that figure covers include many that cannot be produced in this country. However, there is £2,500 million worth of food that we could produce. I do not recommend that people buy British when British is not best, but I believe that farmers, other producers, manufacturers and retailers could do a great deal more to use home sources, so long as they produce food that the public want. It is for the consumer to decide ; we have to meet his demand.
Mr. Gummer : The closing date for responses to the consultation exercise is 13 May. Early indications are of widespread acceptance of the need for change, but, quite properly, the various interests are taking time to prepare their considered responses. All comments will be weighed very carefully by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and myself before any decisions are made.
Mr. Colvin : Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge the serious decline in the agricultural rented sector since the end of the second world war? Does he agree that it would be in the best interests of British agriculture if that trend were reversed? Will he ensure that any new agricultural tenancy legislation will be positive enough to encourage the industry to be dynamic and flexible, so that it may be able to compete in the 1990s? Does he agree that freedom within contract might be the best basis of any new legislation?
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend is perfectly right. The tenanted sector is indeed in decline. We want to improve the opportunities for new entrants to the farming industry. The only way to achieve that is to ensure that more land is available. That is why I have made some radical propositions for change in the landlord and tenant scheme. I am pleased that there is widespread acceptance of both the need for more land and the need for radical change.