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Volume 884: debated on Thursday 23 January 1975

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asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how the future beef régime to be worked out in the EEC will be affected by the fact that there is no provision in the EEC price proposals for the continuation of the variable premium after February, but only for direct headage payment of thirty units of account.

As I said in the debate in the House on 16th January, I have put proposals to the EEC Council of Ministers for the inclusion of a variable premium scheme in the new beef régime. These proposals, together with other proposals for changes in the beef régime, were discussed by the Council at the meeting earlier this week, and the discussion will be resumed at the next meeting of the Council on 10th-11th February. In the meantime the current arrangements for

I do not think that the hon. and learned Gentleman needs an answer. He has made his observation clear.

Following is the information:

beef in the United Kingdom will continue throughout February.

Is the Minister aware of the fall in the price of cattle in the market which we have seen during the past few weeks and still see? I am convinced, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is aware, that it is because of the lack of confidence in a long-term bottom in the market. Therefore, farmers are bringing their stock half finished on to the market in order to get the headage payments before the end of February.

I well understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I believe that it is right to try to negotiate a new long-term agreement for beef, and that is what I am doing. I believe that I have the complete support of the farmers' unions on the issue. I think that in the end that agreement will restore confidence.

Does the Minister appreciate that farmers are selling their cattle forward not only because of lack of confidence but because they do not have the money to buy fodder, and that the doubling of the beef premium is not assisting them to buy the fodder as the premium has not yet arrived in their pockets or banks?

I hope the hon. Lady will appreciate that to get the agreement approved by the Community in negotiations would be good for the industry. I also hope she will understand that the farmers want the agreement.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State answered the fodder question in reply to another Question. As the hon. Lady knows, I advanced the hill and beef cow subsidies.

Can the Minister give us some indication of the reasons why the Council of Ministers has been unable to come to a decision on the structure of the new beef régime?

We had two days of discussions, which are to be continued. I hope that we shall complete them, and then perhaps I shall be able to report to the House.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that he would be in a much stronger position to do all the things that Opposition Members seem to want him to do, and that the National Farmers' Union wants him to do, if he were a completely free agent and could act on behalf of the British Government and people without running cap in hand to the Common Market?

I do not go to the Community cap in hand. I have stated the position of the British Government, which is that we want an entirely new system to replace that which operates purely on the basis of permanent intervention. I am seeking to achieve that. My hon. Friend is right in saying that the Conservatives removed the guarantees.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that I do not accept that for one moment. Of course, we all hope for a thoroughly successful negotiation leading to a satisfactory and workable new beef régime, but, as the Ministers did not reach agreement earlier this week, will the right hon. Gentleman in February increase the steps of the variable premium in the way they have increased over recent months instead of continuing it at the same level as in January?

The right hon. Gentleman must allow me to negotiate in what I think to be the best way. I shall report to the House. There will still be hard negotiating, but I believe that we shall achieve a successful conclusion.