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House of Commons

Thursday 23 February 1995

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


City of Westminster Bill

[Lords] ( By Order ) Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Thursday 2 March.

Queen Mary and Westfield College Bill (

By Order ) Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 2 March.

Oral Answers to Questions


Veal (Marketing and Exporting)

1. Mr. Home Robertson: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the marketing and exporting of humanely produced veal.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. William Waldegrave): I hope that marketing of humanely produced veal can increase, which is why my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is opening a Ministry seminar on that subject tomorrow.

Mr. Home Robertson: As we have been exporting 500,000 calves a year into veal crates and the like on mainland Europe, and as we import the equivalent of 8,000 of them back again as anaemic veal each year, while only 4,000 calves are reared in humane loose-house veal units in Britain, does the Minister accept that our urgent and massive task is to develop the market for welfare-labelled veal not only in Britain but throughout the single European market? That will not simply happen; it will take more than seminars. What resources and what action are the Minister and the Meat and Livestock Commission devoting to promoting that market?

Mr. Waldegrave: As a distinguished producer of high-quality Scottish beef--that is a good product, too--the hon. Gentleman speaks with knowledge. The figures that he gives are correct: about 80 per cent. of our present very small market, which is mostly within the catering trade, is imported. That amount could be replaced, which would be a start. But the hon. Gentleman should not undervalue the importance of getting the retailers, including the supermarkets, and the producers all on side and working together. That is why the seminar tomorrow will be important in terms of promoting a national

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movement working together. We shall back that with our marketing grants, if good candidates are put forward to help develop the market.

Mr. Knapman: My right hon. Friend has made clear the Government's opposition to a unilateral ban on the export of veal calves, but who now supports the Protection of Calves (Export) Bill, other than its promoter, the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew)?

Mr. Waldegrave: As I read it, the Labour party's policy as set out in its policy statement is to do what the Government are doing--to seek a ban through the Commission and the Council of Ministers. That must be the right thing to do. Even if a unilateral ban were legal, which I fear it is not, it is extremely difficult to see how it would work. As soon as the animals were across the channel they would be out of our jurisdiction, and whatever happened to them we could not do much about it.

Dr. Strang: But surely the Minister accepts that the majority of the British people regard it as utterly unacceptable for us to export calves into a system of production so cruel that we have banned it in this country. As he has undertaken to resolve the problem by eliminating veal crates in Europe, can he give the House any idea of a date by which he could reasonably expect to secure that aim?

Mr. Waldegrave: I could give the House good news yesterday, in that on either Monday or Tuesday--I forget at exactly which point during the Council of Ministers' meeting--Commissioner Franz Fischler told us that he had been able to respond more quickly than he originally expected to our request to bring forward the review, and that the report that will have to precede any action across Europe will now be available well before the end of the year. As the scientific committee doing the work is chaired by a distinguished Cambridge veterinarian of great reputation, I believe that its work and its recommendations will carry much weight.


2. Mr. John Townend: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the recent announcement by EU Agriculture Ministers concerning abattoirs.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Angela Browning): The December Council of Agriculture Ministers agreed in principle to a package of amendments to the Fresh Meat Directive 64/433/EEC, but adoption has been delayed because of a procedural difficulty with the European Parliament. The House may wish to know that the derogation increasing the low throughput limit has now been extended to 30 June.

Mr. Townend: I welcome those small concessions, but does my hon. Friend agree that if they had come earlier they might have prevented some of the country abattoirs, such as the excellent one at Kilham, in my constituency, from being closed? Where does she put the blame for the

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fact that so many of our excellent country abattoirs have been closed? Was it the fault of European regulations, or was it British bureaucrats showing excessive zeal?

Mrs. Browning: Neither, because--as my hon. Friend will know--the number of abattoirs in this country has been on a consistently downward trend during the past 15 years. In 1980 there were 1,231 abattoirs in Great Britain, while in 1992 there were 647. The regulations to which my hon. Friend referred were not applied until 1993.

Mr. Hardy: Since this country complies with European requirements in regard to the export of animals, could we not have a greater insistence from the Government that other member states comply with the supposed requirements from Brussels which deal with the welfare and humane slaughter of animals and the conditions of abattoirs?

Mrs. Browning: Absolutely. I have great sympathy and agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. He will be aware that when the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recently produced documentary evidence of the most disgusting and appalling conditions in Greek abattoirs, my right hon. Friend immediately informed the Commission and asked that it be investigated, and that is currently being done.

Mr. Alexander: Is my hon. Friend assuring the House that the directive is being uniformly introduced over the whole of Europe, and that it is being uniformly introduced in this country? Bearing in mind the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Townend), can my hon. Friend give some assurance as to the way in which Members of Parliament will be advised in the future on problems with abattoirs in their constituencies?

Mrs. Browning: We shall be vigilant where we have evidence that the rules are not being kept uniformly throughout the EC. That is important not just from the point of view of the welfare of animals but because of the commercial inequalities which could be created. I am happy to be able to tell the House that, as of September last year, I have implemented a policy whereby when I am asked to sign a closure order for an abattoir, the Member of Parliament concerned is immediately notified in writing and--providing that the abattoir owner gives written permission--the Member of Parliament is invited to come to my Department to examine fully the evidence which is being given to me.

Veal Calves

3. Ms Glenda Jackson: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what recent representations he has received concerning the export of veal calves to other EU member states.

Mrs. Browning: We continue to receive many representations both from organisations and individuals.

Ms Jackson: Does the Minister agree that public opinion is increasing, not only in this country but across Europe, against the particularly abhorrent form of food production that is veal crates? Does she attribute the Minister's failure to convince our European partners to adopt the British ban on this form of food production to

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his own powers of argument or to the anti- European campaign which is being unceasingly waged by his senior colleagues in the Cabinet?

Mrs. Browning: The hon. Lady seems to be remarkably ill-informed on this subject. My right hon. Friend the Minister, in conjunction with Franz Fischler, was instrumental in making sure that there was an early response from the Council of Ministers to the directive which currently makes veal crates legal in the rest of Europe. In negotiations with all of our EC partners, we have not had one voice raised from any country--regardless of either commercial interests or the fact that a country perhaps does not consider the measure to be something it wishes to adopt--in support of the raising of veal calves in crates.

We believe that the report will come forward quickly, and even Italy, which has a vast commercial interest in the matter, has assured me that if the report has not been brought forward by the time it holds the presidency, it will put the matter at the top of the agenda. I hope that the report will be out before then. That shows the spirit and influence of my right hon. Friend.

Sir Terence Higgins: The Minister has said that we are unable to impose a unilateral ban on the export of live animals for slaughter, as it would be contrary to European law. In a debate yesterday, my right hon. Friend said that the legal arguments were scarcely worth looking at, but the replies that he has given to questions have not answered in detail the case put forward by Compassion in World Farming. Has the matter been referred to the Law Officers, and will my right hon. Friend publish the legal opinion which he has received in dealing with the particular cases quoted in the representations to which I have referred?

Mrs. Browning: My right hon. Friend made it very clear in a three- hour debate yesterday that we have taken legal advice from more than one source, and it would be highly irregular and unusual for any Minister to disclose whether the Law Officers have been consulted. My right hon. Friend has been very open about the advice that we have received. It is quite conclusive--this country would be open to charge in the courts if we applied a unilateral ban to the blanket export of live animals or to certain species destined for certain types of rearing.

Mr. Barnes: Yesterday morning, during the debate, we received a great deal of information from the Minister about what discussions had occurred within the European Union at an earlier stage and about developments and possibilities for changes, as the aim was generally to change European Union regulations. Is it not a pity that there has to be a great deal of trouble over an issue before that type of information is supplied to the House?

I have never heard of an attempt to provide information about any other item that affects the European Union on such a basis. If we are sending Ministers to act on our behalf in such matters, we need them to report back on what has occurred, so that we know that what we want is being pursued. That is not occurring generally--

Madam Speaker: Order. I need a question, not a speech.

Mrs. Browning: My right hon. Friend arrived back in this country from a two-day Council meeting at 3 am.

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By 10.30 am yesterday, he was sharing with the House information about that Council and its procedures. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman feels that he should have been telegrammed at 4 am, 5 am or 6 am, but if he writes to us on that basis we will look into it.

Horticultural Industry

4. Mr. Legg: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what action he is taking following the publication of the results of his study into the problems of the horticultural industry.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jack): I identified six key areas for further work, which we are taking forward with the industry.

Mr. Legg: Can my hon. Friend confirm that exporting is one of the six key areas that he is considering? What does he hope will be the benefit to British produce of that review?

Mr. Jack: I can confirm that exporting, especially selling into the single market, is one of the key areas that we are considering as part of the horticulture project. I am considering ways in which we can provide practical assistance to our industry. There are already some hopeful signs that breakthroughs are being made. One company from Cambridgeshire has increased exports of salads and vegetables to Spain, Italy and Sweden by 74 per cent. in recent years and 15 per cent. of all United Kingdom daffodil bulbs are exported. Narcissus bulbs go to Holland and English apples are a leading item in the Marks and Spencer store in Paris.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Why did not the Minister support a full Horticultural Development Council ballot, instead of the compromise consultation of a very shadowy nature?

Mr. Jack: The hon. Gentleman usually considers the background of such questions meticulously. Had he done so, he would know that, under the Act that governs the operation of development councils, we are statutorily obliged to consult with representative bodies. We consulted 41, which are democratically elected and are said to represent the interests of their members. Not one requested a statutory ballot, and that is why we did not have one.

Lady Olga Maitland: What steps is my hon. Friend taking to encourage producers to improve their promotional skills and, therefore, to sell more of their produce?

Mr. Jack: We have the very successful marketing development scheme in operation, with a budget of £10 million over three years. We have already made available about £1 million to the 30 successful horticultural projects that applied for assistance. For example, we gave £150,000 towards the restructuring of the English National Fruit Company, ENFRU, which enabled the apple industry to rationalise its marketing and deal more successfully with supermarkets.

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5. Mr. Nigel Griffiths: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what recent discussions he has had with farmers about the problems they face in dealing with supermarkets.

Mr. Jack: My right hon. Friend and I frequently talk to farmers about the importance of producing for the customer, including supermarkets, and our marketing grants provide practical help towards that end.

Mr. Griffiths: Does the Minister share the concerns of the National Farmers Union about the future funding of regional speciality food groups, which help redress the balance between producers and supermarkets, and does he share our concerns about the uncertainty of their future funding?

Mr. Jack: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the assistance given by groups such as Food From Britain to small, regional groups that produce speciality food. He will no doubt know about organisations such as Taste of the West and Taste of the North West. I have no indication whatever that future financial assistance to help those groups will not be forthcoming.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: Does my hon. Friend accept that farmers raise animals to be eaten, not slaughtered at birth? In his talks with farmers and dealings with supermarkets, will he stress the importance of producing rose veal? Will he ask the Parliamentary Secretary to stress at her seminar tomorrow the importance of supermarkets buying only rose veal, preferably home-produced?

Mr. Jack: My hon. Friend will be well supported by one British supermarket, which has already said that its future marketing plans for veal will be precisely as she described. Supermarkets are sometimes unjustly criticised with regard to promoting welfare systems for animals. A number of them make it a feature of the meat that they produce, and they market accordingly. They are doing a great deal to encourage and support the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to promote high standards of welfare in livestock production.

Mr. Martyn Jones: Is the Minister aware that farmers of products such as lettuces and early-season tomatoes often gear up their business to meet the demands of supermarkets, only to have the rug pulled from under them by imports? Has the Minister any specific ideas to remedy that problem?

Mr. Jack: The hon. Gentleman should do his research properly, certainly with regard to early-season tomatoes and some newer varieties of lettuce because the partnership between supermarkets and growers has enabled those new varieties to be grown. The resurgence of the Little Gem lettuce is but one example of how supermarkets have helped. As for pulling the rug, I had a seminar with some of the leading buyers of supermarket produce and, on the subject of apples, they agreed that if they got the right product, they would not buy from outside the United Kingdom. Last season they bought no Dutch Cox, in spite of a price advantage, and they thereby supported producers of high-quality Cox apples.

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6. Mr. Michael Spicer: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what estimate he has made of the effect of the proposals in the Agricultural Tenancies Bill on the supply of farmland available for rent.

Mr. Waldegrave: A survey carried out last year by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors suggested that the proposed reforms could increase the area of let land by up to 10 per cent. over five years. This was before my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced his intention to extend inheritance tax relief to let land from 1 September 1995. If anything, the survey results underestimate the position.

Mr. Spicer: May I pass on the undiluted and undying gratitude of 400 of my tenanted market gardeners to the Secretary of State and Minister of State for having, this week, amended the Agricultural Tenancies Bill to preserve 100-year old rights under the Evesham custom? It will do everything to inspire the proper marketing of tenanted land in my constituency.

Mr. Waldegrave: I pay tribute my hon. Friend for raising that important point. Unique to his part of the country is the fact that, over the years, the market and individual good sense have found a way round the perhaps over-restrictive laws that need to be changed elsewhere. Because his area found a satisfactory way of doing that under the old tenancy law, we thought it right to preserve it. I am sure that it was the right thing to do. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his thanks.

Mr. Alan W. Williams: The Minister will know of the concern that the proportion of tenanted land has dropped from some 90 per cent. at the turn of the century to some 50 per cent. now. Is that a bad thing? Why are hon. Members from all parties pleased to see a rise in owner-occupation in housing, but concerned about the increase in owner-occupation in farming?

Mr. Waldegrave: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the increase in owner-occupied family farms in that period is a good thing. But all sides of the industry agree that more tenanted land would help people to enter the industry. There will always be large estates, for example the Co- operative Wholesale Society's large estates, which were mentioned in the debate on that subject, and easier access to them for young farmers on a tenanted basis must be good for the future of the industry. That is the intention of our Bill, which is supported by all sides: landowners; tenants' organisations; and young farmers.

Organic Production

7. Mr. Jacques Arnold: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what voluntary schemes now exist to encourage organic production methods.

Mr. Waldegrave: My Department launched the organic aid scheme for England on 1 July; it aims to encourage a three-fold increase in organic produce over the next few years.

Mr. Arnold: Bearing in mind that organic farming has the same effect in terms of volumes produced as set-aside, but in the process produces high -quality food--that is particularly noticeable at Luddesdown court in my

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constituency--and bearing in mind that most of the organic food for sale in Britain comes from abroad, what is the Government doing about research and development to improve that industry?

Mr. Waldegrave: I thoroughly support the implication of my hon. Friend's question. This Friday, I shall be visiting one of our best-known organic farmers to have a look at the industry. He is quite right about the importations. My guess is that about two thirds of the organic food we eat in Britain is imported, and we should be producing it here. That is why my Department is putting over £1 million this year into research to support the organic movement, as it is vital to get the underpinning of the industry right at the beginning.

British Jam

8. Mr. Whittingdale: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what measures he is taking to promote the sale of British jam.

Mr. Jack: We promote our high-quality British jams and preserves through Food From Britain's programme of action on speciality foods at home and abroad.

Mr. Whittingdale: My hon. Friend will be aware of the excellent jams and marmalades produced by Wilkins of Tiptree in my constituency. Can he confirm that, despite that splendid British product, we still have a balance of payments deficit in jam? What is he doing to correct that imbalance?

Mr. Jack: My hon. Friend is right to draw the attention of the jam makers of Britain to the commercial opportunity that exists to bridge the gap in the jam trade. I am glad that he mentioned Wilkins and company, the manufacturers of Tiptree jam in his constituency. That company has perhaps shown the way forward. It grows its own raw material on 1,100 acres, and one of its recent successes that has helped to turn back the tide of imports has been the brand Little Scarlet, made from strawberries grown in Essex. It has been a tremendous success that I hope will be replicated throughout the length and breadth of the land.

Mr. Skinner: Why can't we have jam today?

Mr. Jack: Because the hon. Gentleman represents the "jam tomorrow" party.

Mr. Lord: May I remind my right hon. Friend that it will seriously damage British jam sales if we do not have enough British sugar to go in the jam? I urge him not to forget that all the British sugar beet growers are expecting him to fight very hard for our sugar beet quota.

Mr. Jack: My hon. Friend would have been in European Standing Committee A when we had a lengthy debate on that subject and he will know the Government's line. We do not believe that the United Kingdom should suffer any form of quota cut. Our production is already in balance with our consumption of sugar, if one takes cane and beet production in total. Other member states have a total imbalance, and, in the light of the general agreement on tariffs and trade, they, not we, should bear the brunt of any adjustments.

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Livestock (Cruelty)

9. Mr. Flynn: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make it his policy to prevent those with convictions for cruelty to livestock from continuing to export livestock.

Mrs. Browning: The law provides for severe penalties of up to £1, 000 per animal on conviction for mistreating animals in transport. We are also pressing for the introduction of a Community-wide licensing system which would provide for the disqualification of persistent or serious offenders.

Mr. Flynn: Should not the Morris report on animal transport be implemented and should we not ensure that hauliers of livestock are licensed to prevent men such as Richard Otley, who was convicted of calculated cruelty to animals and Mr. Roger Mills, who was convicted of assaulting a disabled woman who protested because he was mistreating cows, from continuing to inflict prolonged suffering on defenceless calves and lambs?

Mrs. Browning: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all major recommendations in the Morris report have been implemented to ensure that high standards of export certification are maintained. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are working very hard on the licensing question. There is unanimity in the European Community, among both veterinarians and Ministers, that there should be a Community-wide licensing system. We must ensure that if the cowboys--those people who do not respect animals--cross the channel and commit offences in other countries, we can bring them before the courts in the country where they committed that offence.

Mr. Mark Robinson: Does my hon. Friend agree that penalties for cruelty to animals are stiffer in this country than they are in many other European countries? Will she continue her work to help other European countries to bring their animal welfare standards up to our level?

Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend is quite correct: we have high standards in this country, and we enforce them. We want to see animal welfare standards raised throughout the European Community. As was explained in yesterday's debate--I think it is an important point--it is not just a question of the welfare of animals within the United Kingdom. If we are really serious about animal welfare, we should be concerned about animals in the UK, Spain, Greece or wherever. We shall achieve the greatest prize on a Europewide basis, as my right hon. Friend the Minister told the House yesterday.

Mr. Morley: While I welcome the Minister's comments about the need for a Europe-wide licence scheme, does she accept that we could take national action on that, as we are not restrained by European legislation? We could introduce a licensing scheme in the UK which would crack down on the cowboys and those people who are bringing the entire industry into disrepute.

Mrs. Browning: The hon. Gentleman and I are at one on the need to toughen the law and, as he knows, on 23 January we introduced further measures to do just that. However, we are aware that it is not a seamless robe, and

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if the hon. Gentleman and his party have any practical suggestions about enforcing the rules, we should be happy to examine them.

Set-aside Land

10. Mr. David Nicholson: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what environmental gains can be made from set-aside land.

Mr. Waldegrave: Sympathetic management of set-aside land helps wildlife to flourish. Recent Royal Society for the Protection of Birds research has shown this in relation to specific species such as skylark and linnet. In winter, there are on average 15 times as many birds feeding on set-aside fields as on neighbouring conventional cereal fields.

Mr. Nicholson: Given the valid point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), does my right hon. Friend agree that, while set-aside is perhaps not the ideal way to cut agricultural production, we should nevertheless make the most of the opportunities that it presents? Will my right hon. Friend inform the House what progress he has made in the European Commission to allow land that is set aside for forestry and other schemes to count against set-aside requirements?

Mr. Waldegrave: I agree with my hon. Friend: we did not support the introduction of set-aside and we would prefer the burden to be taken by cuts in prices. However, while we have it we must use it properly. I prompted the Commission to bring forward the long-promised report to the Council on exactly the points that my hon. Friend has made. The report is now before the Special Committee for Agriculture, which will then bring it back to the Council. I hope for agreement at the next Council meeting, or the one after that.

Mr. Bennett: Does the Minister agree that the English hedgerow is a very important and much-appreciated feature of the countryside? What incentive does the farmer who sets aside his land have to tend and nurture the hedgerow in order to maintain it as a feature, rather than to neglect it and allow it to become a straggling line of disconnected trees?

Mr. Waldegrave: The hon. Gentleman will know that proposals about particularly important hedgerows are currently before the House in the Environment Bill. I do not think that many farmers neglect hedgerows nowadays in the way that the hon. Gentleman has described and we welcome the new planting and the replanting of hedgerows that is going on.

Environmentally Sensitive Areas

11. Mr. Rowe: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how many environmentally sensitive area scheme agreements have now been signed.

Mr. Jack: There are now 5,644 environmentally sensitive area agreements signed, with a further 604 under consideration.

Mr. Rowe: My hon. Friend will know that, among those, is the north Kent marshes environmentally sensitive

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area. Will he say whether the farmers involved are satisfied with the way that it is developing? Does he feel that the area meets the criteria?

Mr. Jack: The terms under which ESAs are run are always subject to review. As to the north Kent marshes ESA, we have increased the rate of payment for reversion of arable land from £240 per hectare to £260 per hectare. We set ourselves a target that 15 per cent. of the ESA should become arable reversion. Some 83 per cent. of that target has been met. Some 700 hectares of land have now returned to pasture use.

Live Animal Transport

12. Mr. Simon Hughes: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what are the Government's objectives for European Union policy changes during 1995 on the subject of the transport of live animals within the EU.

Mr. Waldegrave: Our objectives are to win agreement to a system that contains satisfactory journey limits and journey times based on the best veterinary advice. We have also succeeded in securing an early review of Community legislation on the welfare of calves.

Mr. Hughes: The Minister did a good job in Brussels the other day. I wish him well in achieving a successful outcome to the negotiations and a successful Europewide agreement. Does he accept that the lesson to be learned, in what has been a fast-moving situation in the past few weeks, is that, if we can possibly achieve national cross-party agreement on these issues, on the basis of Government proposals put to the House, which are debated and agreed here first, his hand will be strengthened and European animal welfare will be considerably improved?

Mr. Waldegrave: I am genuinely grateful for the hon. Gentleman's words. I think that he has a real point. The strength that any Minister has in negotiating for improvements which are broadly supported by the House, if the House can for a moment forget its party divisions and put the united interests of the country first, is always considerable.

Mr. Marland: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is somewhat unusual that this is yet another significant statement from the Liberal party, but not from the shadow Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? Is my right hon. Friend as curious as I am as to exactly where he is?

Mr. Waldegrave: I am informed that they seek him here, they seek him there, they seek him everywhere.

EU Agriculture Policy

13. Mr. Mackinlay: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he will next be meeting his opposite numbers in the European Union to discuss the European Union agricultural policy.

Mr. Waldegrave: I met the other European Agriculture Ministers at the Agriculture Council earlier this week. The next Agriculture Council is scheduled for 27 and 28 March.

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