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Eec (Farming Areas)

Volume 885: debated on Tuesday 4 February 1975

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10.1 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. Gavin Strang)

I beg to move,

That this House takes note of Commission Document No. R/27/75 but declines to approve any restriction on the subsidy payments to pensioners.
I propose to start by giving hon. Members a little background to the rather difficult documentation on this question and then to say a few words about the reasons which lead the Government to favour the proposal before the House.

The nine draft instruments which constitute the Commission's proposal under reference R27/75 will, when adopted by the EEC Council, bring into effect the less favoured areas directive which was adopted by the Council in January 1974. A text of that directive was placed in the Library of the House in December.

Hon. Members may recall that earlier drafts of this directive have been available to the House for some time. Indeed, in April 1973 I initiated a debate on this question from the Opposition benches on a motion for the Adjournment. Hon. Members also had the opportunity to question the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the progress of negotiations on that text on a number of occasions.

The first draft of the main directive was the subject of an explanatory memorandum to the House in April 1973. The text adopted in January 1974 differed from the original text in a number of respects and, I hope, benefited from the contributions made in this House on those earlier occasions.

The Commission's implementing proposal is in two parts. The first eight draft directives delineate the geographical coverage of the less favoured areas in the eight member States applying the system—that is all except Denmark. The United Kingdom's submission regarding areas has been accepted by the Commission.

The ninth draft directive sets out the rate proposed for Community financing of these so-called compensatory allowances. They are, in fact, headage payments for animals on the lines of our hill cow and hill sheep subsidies. There is also a note on the financial implications for the Community. If the proposal is adopted in its present form FEOGA financing at a rate of 50 per cent. will be available towards member States' expenditure on headage payments from January this year. Community contribution towards special capital aids paid by member States has already been agreed at 25 per cent.

I turn now to the merits of the proposal. When, in April 1973, the House debated this issue, I said that I welcomed the directive for broadly three reasons—first, because it extended direct payments to producers and thus reduced pressure from community farmers for higher end prices; secondly, because it ended our fears regarding the future of our hill subsidies in the light of the Commission's then preoccupation with free competition policy; and, thirdly, because it represented an acknowledgment by the Community that the hill areas required special treatment in the context of the common agricultural policy.

All in all, the directive adopted last year and these implementing proposals can be said to do what I and many other hon. Members hoped that they would do.

Perhaps I can add that the reason why there has been a delay of about 12 months between adoption and implementation is that real change takes time, and new schemes have to be devised and set up in all the other member States of the Community in the 12 months interval. I should also like to commend to hon. Members the financial terms of the proposal, under which the Commission proposes to make a large fund available—160 million units of account, or some £65 million per annum—of which the United Kingdom stands to gain just under 30 per cent.

But my own support for the original draft directive was conditional on the details of its provisions. On the point of greatest concern to everyone in the agricultural industry, the definition of the areas eligible for special assistance, I am glad to say that we have achieved everything that we wanted. There are, however, three respects in which the directive hampers our freedom of action. One of these, the limitation of headage subsidy payments to farmers not in receipt of retirement pensions, is referred to in the motion. We do not see the logic of this limitation and hon. Members can take it that we are determined to ensure that it need not be applied in the United Kingdom.

Another limitation in the directive would restrict our freedom to run national grant schemes at preferential rates in the hills in addition to the scheme envisaged by the directive and there is also a provision which limits the amount of headage payment that a farmer can receive per hectare and could lead to some farmers receiving lower headage payments than at present. On both these points we intend to secure a measure of flexibility before the directive is put into effect.

So far as crofting is concerned, there are some grants currently payable to Scottish crofters that are not wholly covered by this directive. At the EEC Council of Ministers meeting in November 1973 the Minister of Agriculture in the last Conservative administration said that the United Kingdom could not regard the directive as affecting our right to continue the special investment aids to crofters under separate crofting legislation, and I can assure the House that this Government takes the same view.

10.8 p.m.

We welcome these proposals. The history of this document is long, in European and British parliamentary terms. As the Minister said, he himself has worked hard to ensure that such proposals were adopted by the EEC. Indeed, no sooner had the Commission issued its draft than he initiated an Adjournment debate in the House. I am very glad that he is involved in the final stages of the debate.

It is also appropriate that we should be discussing hill farmers at this time, because no section of the community has suffered more than they in this exceptionally bad year. This measure will help to restore their confidence in part now that they know that these systems of aid will continue. One of the major fears of agriculture on our entry of the EEC was that our traditional national aids for hills and other less favoured areas would be disallowed under the CAP. For this reason, hill farming figured prominently in the Treaty of Accession.

The then Conservative Government secured in those negotiations a commitment by the Community to safeguards for our special aids to hill farmers, culminating in February 1973 when the Commission fulfilled that commitment with these first proposals. They were debated throughout the autumn by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers and the final text was agreed in November 1973, the document being adopted by the Council in January 1974. Since then the Government have guided the Commission to the position reached today. Both major parties can therefore take credit for what is a major change of direction in Community policy.

This directive is concrete evidence that the common agricultural policy is flexible and capable of accommodating national needs. Now as a result of the action of the last few years our own hill aids are assured and are built into the CAP in eight of the EEC countries. Of course, they would be available to Denmark as well. In addition, the FEOGA funds will bear 50 per cent. of the cost, so that Britain stands to gain a considerable amount. As a result of this measure between £20 million and £22 million will be saved for the British taxpayer.

It is appropriate to compliment our negotiators in the first instance, but we should also compliment our Commissioners in Brussels for the work they have done, and those Conservative and Liberal Members of both Houses of Parliament and the one independent Member who have been working in Strasbourg and Brussels to achieve their objective. It is unfortunate that the Labour Party cannot see fit to send anyone to that Parliament, but I hope that that situation will soon be remedied.

It is interesting to consider the extent to which this measure will help. The hill farming area of the United Kingdom represents a significant and highly important sector of our agricultural economy. Over one-third of the United Kingdom acreage—some 16 million acres—are affected. In Scotland and Wales hill farms form the majority of holdings. In all about 50,000 agricultural holdings stand to benefit from this measure.

I hope the Minister will clarify one or two points. Will he assure us that the hill land capital grant scheme, the hill cow and the hill sheep schemes and the winter keep subsidies will remain? I am interested, too, in the position of the over-65s. I fully support everything the Minister said and all that the Government are doing to ensure that there is no restriction there. I find it impossible to believe that an arrangement could be embodied in this measure to debar the over 65s from receiving help, and I hope that the Government succeed in ensuring that there will be no such division in this country. Is the area which is eligible precisely the same as the one we were operating for hill subsidies previously?

This measure will help to restore in part the confidence of the hill farmers at a time when that confidence is needed. In view of the bad year they have just suffered some measure of confidence must be restored to them. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I welcome these proposals.

10.15 p.m.

Liberal Members welcome the draft directive, which will do a power of good to the sheep industry. The incentives from the Community will help our balance of payments in the years to come. We now realise the potential of our hill and marginal land. We import 54 per cent. of our meat requirements. I am sure that the new incentives will bring badly-needed stability back to the hill areas.

But I should like the Minister to clarify their impact on United Kingdom law. We do not yet have sheep regulations. The Explanatory Memorandum says that
"our present Hill Cow and Hill Sheep Subsidy Schemes would require replacement by a regulation made under the European Communities Act".
Because we do not have sheep regulations in this country or within the Common Market, I hope that it is not right to say that we shall eventually lose the guaranteed price system. I declare my interest, being Vice-Chairman of the British Wool Marketing Board. I hope that the board will not lose its statutory powers. Many farmers, unions and others in Britain believe that we should have sheep regulations. Others believe that we should not, and that we are doing much better as we are.

I should like clarification on those points, but I accept the draft directive, and I am sure that the majority of hill farmers also accept it.

10.17 p.m.

I hope that speaking after ten o'clock, although I had to speak earlier in the day, will not act as a barrier to me when I wish to speak in the future.

Because I was involved in the devolution debate, I cannot say that I have read the long document before us with the necessary care. Therefore, I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his brief explanation.

Far be it from me to look a gift horse in the mouth, particularly when debating an agricultural matter. I thank my hon. Friend for agreeing to add to the motion the rider
"but declines to approve any restriction on the subsidy payments to pensioners."
I recall my hon. Friend raising this in an Adjournment debate. Indeed, I may have asked him to do so. The motion is a notable advance. We have had a painful experience over the past few months, in trying to debate other EEC directives and obtain the right response from the Government. It has given us little pleasure to have to divide the House at 11.30 p.m. on an issue on which we would have expected the Government, and more likely the Manifesto Group, to support us.

I am glad that the Government have recognised that one way forward is themselves to add the appropriate amendment to the take-note motion. I hope that this will continue. The stronger we can make the hands of our negotiating Ministers in Brussels, the better. They need that strength. Initiating such an amendment puts them into a stronger position, when it is backed by the House, as compared with their position when they have to go against an adverse vote in the House. This is a useful advance.

Curiously enough, this is more important to England and Wales than to Scotland, because in spite of what Scottish National Party Members say, we frequently have separate legislation. One development which has taken place in Scotland which has not happened in England and Wales is that we have given security of tenure to the sons, daughters or widows of tenant farmers. That means that they will be safeguarded in the event of the farmer being a pensioner and wishing to pass on the succession. The difficulty in England is that succession is not always guaranteed. It is not just a question of the subsidy being necessary to keep an old man. The point is that when he might wish to give up work in England he cannot do so and he has to continue being an old man in farming for the purpose of keeping the tenancy of the farm.

Now that the hon. Gentleman has his right hon. and hon. Friends back in power will he wish to develop the same line of provision in the law in England and Wales that he has just referred to as prevailing in Scotland?

I am sure that it is the subject of continual discussions at 3 Whitehall Place. Of that I am confident.

I hope that we shall receive the support of the Liberal Party on this issue. We have not always had its support on other Common Market matters. It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells). I am not quite sure whether he did or did not want sheep regulations.

There are no sheep regulations. For the benefit of the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan), there are no sheep regulations within the EEC.

I know that. That is not an answer to the question which I put. Is the hon. Gentleman in favour of having sheep regulations or is he not?

I am not in favour unless we can substitute something better than the statutory agreement which already exists in this country along with the support system.

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the present deficiency payment that applies to sheep has been an excellent system and that it should be allowed to continue?

That is precisely the point to which I was leading. I could not help making a little detour in the direction of the Liberals, who have supported the Common Market for so long and with so much enthusiasm.

We are still in the position of having to defend aspects of the deficiency payments system which we have not yet unscrambled in the same way as for the beef system. Assurances on that point would be useful to underline the assurances that the Minister has already given us. The other assurance that we require is on the question whether each and every aspect of the existing subsidy is either to be continued or to be altered in a form that is not less beneficial to the hill sheep farmer.

There are certain difficulties in reading the regulations which are issued from Brussels. The present matter is a bit difficult even for a highly paid deficiency supporter sheep farmer to understand, and there are few of them. I shall refer to some of the definitions that are given concerning altitudes and other matters. The Explanatory Memorandum reads:
"concerning the existence, by reason of altitude, of very difficult climatic conditions the result of which is a substantially shortened growing season, the Commission considers that such conditions occur at altitudes above 600–800 metres …"
Clearly that is a figure that is largely irrelevant to Scotland.

A diligent urban Conservative Member felt that he had located a great excess of public expenditure when he discovered that a farm receiving a hill grant was at zero level above the sea. I had to explain that in Scotland the badness of certain land could be considered in horizontal as well as vertical terms. We were dealing with the quality of land. These provisions are of little assistance to us. It might be useful if we disseminated the appropriate facts in Britain.

The Explanatory Memorandum goes on to deal with slopes. It reads:
"concerning the slopes, since by their present mechanisation is not possible or necessitates the use of very expensive special machinery, the Commission is of the opinion that such slopes must be greater than 20 per cent. (average slope/square kilometre)."
I must say that the traditional British approach of assessing land was much more sensible. Perhaps the Minister will comment if I am misreading the memorandum.

Consider the mathematical logic of this:
"When the natural handicap resulting from one of the factors referred to in the above two indents is less severe, that which results from the other must be proportionately more acute in such a way that the sum of the two handicaps is not less than that resulting from each of the factors taken separately."
The average hill sheep farmer will be most uncertain about what he will get.

First, there must be comparison between our land and the conditions specified. Secondly, we need assurances about the existing subsidies. Thirdly, we shall fight if necessary to retain deficiency payments for sheep. Fourthly, we must make sure that the knowledge we gain can be properly disseminated through the whole farming community. It is not sufficient for us to take note. We must be assured that the Government have the means to ensure that the pension aspect will not only be covered by a motion in the House but will be fought for in Brussels. Given those assurances, I am in favour of taking note of the document.

10.26 p.m.

I should like to follow the first point made by the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan), namely, the form of the motion which is before the House. It is a new form, at any rate it is a new form as moved by the Government, although I think the form was pre- viously achieved as the result of the Government accepting an amendment which was proposed from the back benches. The material words are:

"This House … declines to approve any restriction on the subsidy payments to pensioners."
As I understand, a year or so ago when the council adopted the directive in January 1974 it was stated in an earlier memorandum which was before us that compensatory allowances would not be extended to old-age pensioners. I am not clear whether the document which is before the House now excludes compensatory allowances.

So we have before us an EEC document which excludes compensatory allowances for old-age pensioners and which will come before the Council not later than the end of February. We were told in the Explanatory Memorandum that the Government were still exploring the scope for flexibility on these issues, but the Government are now asking the House to end any question of flexibility by declining to approve the directive.

My hon. Friend is in some difficulty. The words are—

"declines to approve any restriction".
and there is in the document such a restriction on subsidy payments to pensioners. The Government are inviting the House to direct them, in so far as the House can, not to agree in the Council of Ministers to the directive unless it has been amended. There has been no dissent from the Government Front Bench, so I take it that that is the position.

That takes us very far. The Government have not merely accepted but have volunteered that this House with a draft directive in front of it should give a direction to the Government on top of that. I presume that the Government, having moved the amendment, will if it is carried veto if necessary the adoption of a directive which contained the offensive material.

Would it not be even more satisfactory if, instead of merely presuming that the Government could do that, they would assure us definitely that they would in the circumstances not accept the directive?

I assume that there is to be a reply by the Government, and at the moment I am working on the natural meaning of the document, the interpretation of it, and the form of the motion that the Government have invited the House to adopt.

This leads us very much further. I am sure that it is good of the Government to make this suggestion of their own motion. But when legislation of any kind is before the House, although we often have the advantage of amendments moved by the Government, who have had second thoughts or see ways in which that legislation can be improved, it is not entirely unknown for the House, or the Committee, by a majority to insist on amendments which have not originally occurred to the Government. It would therefore appear that, on the Government's own admission, it is within the power of the House in effect to amend draft directives and thereby ensure that directives are not agreed to which, in detail, do not accord with the wishes of the House.

Is it not the case that Ministers going to the Council of Ministers are going in order to negotiate, and that what we are doing in this Chamber is to give them aid and direction in those negotiations—if necessary to give support but not to mandate them by passing amendments to "take note" motions?

The hon. Gentleman has seen the difficulty but he has not escaped from it. He used a pair of what were not synonyms. He said, "aid and direction". It is one thing to aid the Government with general expressions of sentiment, perhaps of the sentiments the hon. Gentleman referred to, but it is another matter to direct them. We should be clear that, when the Government advise the House to accept a motion in which it "declines to approve", they are not saying, "It would be quite a help if you pass this motion, but if we are in a tight place we nevertheless shall accept it without that amendment". Surely the meaning is that the Government are saying to the House, "We promise you that we are not going to accept this directive unless it has been amended in this way, and in faith of that we are inviting you to decline to approve any such restriction".

The Government are holding out their hands for the handcuffs to be put on by the House. They have designed the handcuffs and have come along this evening holding out their wrists. So they themselves wish that their powers of negotiation, their scope for negotiation, should be limited. That is gratifying, but there may be circumstances in which the Government do not want their scope for negotiation to be limited, but in which this House does, and in future it will not be possible for the Government to say that, because the Council is a negotiating body, because Ministers go to the Council to agree with their fellow Council members, therefore this House cannot take detailed decisions on amendments to the draft. That is all finished now because all the business about negotiating and having a negotiating position has gone.

True, the Government are no doubt inviting us to enshrine their negotiating position in a motion of this House, but if they are to say, "You can only enshrine our negotiating position", they are asserting the superiority of the executive here over this House.

An extremely important event has occurred at the presentation of this motion. We have escaped, apparently, from what seemed to be the old position—that, because the Minister, when he went to the Council of Ministers, was going to be a member of a negotiating team, he could not prejudice his position in advance and therefore the House could not lay down binding requirements. It seemed to us, therefore, that we had our control over the executive to that extent restricted. That was always the argument.

Now we have been told that it is perfectly all right for a Minister to go to the Council of Ministers with, behind him, a specific direction from this House not to agree unless a certain amendment is made. I believe that this is something which can now be developed a great deal further. There is at present a Select Committee of this House on the procedure for dealing with EEC delegated legislation. I hope that the Committee will be able to take account of our experience this evening.

We are much indebted to the Government. Hon. Members who study these matters carefully would have detected these disadvantages in the directives and would have brought them to notice, but it is not good enough to leave it to chance. As it is law which will be binding in this country and as these are regulations under which our agriculture is to be conducted, we must find some way in which some examination can be given to the text of EEC law as to the text of United Kingdom law, since we now know that there is the same opportunity for amendment of EEC law in advance as a condition of its being accepted as there is for amendment of United Kingdom law.

We have broken down the fictitious barrier raised between the responsibility of Ministers in this House in respect of United Kingdom legislation and their allegedly much more muted responsibility in the case of Community legislation. We see what important consequences can sometimes follow in the broadening of parliamentary liberties from an apparently local and limited matter such as hill farming subsidies and the EEC directive.

10.37 p.m.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) touched on an important element in this debate—namely the fact that as well as studying the instrument, it is also appropriate for us tonight to study the form of that instrument. The point made by the right hon. Gentleman is of considerable importance in the consideration of secondary legislation.

Going back to debates held in this House over a number of years, I believe it is true to say that this is not the first time this House has given a specific directive or binding view to Ministers going to Brussels. Under a Conservative Government, both in the case of lorries and in respect of a motion moved by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) on the age for driving licences, this House gave directives to Ministers who were about to negotiate and expressed its view that the will of this House was to be taken into account by those Ministers.

The hon. Gentleman is quite correct, but the difference in this case is that those were expressions of opinion by the House in form of its own motion, whereas this is expressly a limitation on the power to accede to a directive which at the moment is before the House.

My understanding is that in both cases they were statements by the House of what its opinion was in regard to a particular directive which was to come before the Council of Ministers in the near future. Although it is of interest that this is the first time that there has been a Government motion in this form, it is not the first time that the House has been able to vote in this way. Therefore, although there is some precedent, the precedent is perhaps not quite as great as the right hon. Gentleman was trying to suggest in his remarks which, as always, were of interest. Ministers who go to the Council of Ministers will still go to negotiate the situation. In those negotiations it is possible that they may have to accede to something, as they might have done on previous occasions when the House has expressed a view which was not in keeping with a resolution that was before it.

The view which has been taken before, and which still stands today, is that if the Government go on doing that, they will lose the confidence of this House. The House has always been free to express its views on Community instruments and it is important that we should continue to be so. I do not necessarily think that debates at ten o'clock are the best way of doing this, but that is a matter for the Select Committee on Procedure. I hope that we shall find a better way of doing it.

We must find a way in which the House can express its views, not only in general terms, but in detail, so as to give advice to Ministers. It would be a mistake to go further, as the right hon. Gentleman tried to do, and to say that we should shackle Ministers. They will, for the time being, have power to give their agreement in the Council of Ministers. If the House passes a series of motions concerning a list of directives and Ministers continue to return to the House having disregarded those resolutions, it will be appropriate for a motion of censure to be tabled.

When the Government lose the confidence of this House because they have not acted in accordance with its general wishes and cannot explain why they believed that it would have been against the best interests of the British people to have done otherwise, they will have to take the consequences of the motion of censure.

My hon. Friend will remember that the Foster Report, on which our procedure in these matters is largely based, went further and said that it was inconceivable that any Government could disregard a resolution of this House. That was accepted at the time by both Front Benches and it seems to be clearly implicit that if a specific vote of this kind were taken the Government could not disregard it, whatever happened in Brussels.

My right hon. Friend has taken the view expressed by the Foster Committee. I was attempting to argue that it would be inconceivable for any Government to continue to disregard the view of this House, expressed in a resolution, unless they could explain that, in the whole negotiating framework of the Community, they had acted in the best interests of this country and overridden a resolution of the House. That was the position before today and I believe that it is the position today.

There is a certain amount of innovation here because the Government have tabled this take-note motion with a rider. This is probably the first time in the annals of the House that this has been done, so it is a rather important innovation. In spite of what the right hon. Gentleman so eloquently argued, I do not believe that there has been quite the constitutional innovation he thinks.

10.44 p.m.

I welcome this document, which will bring to our uplands and highlands a sense of confidence in the future. Many farmers in these areas have been unhappy about their future. This will restore their confidence and we will get from the uplands and the hills the store cattle we need. This is one of the aims of this type of subsidy.

I hope that the House will note that it is not only a question of seeing that there is a supply of store cattle. These grants are social aids directed—just as was our hill cow subsidy—to ensuring that people remain in these areas. We do not want to see these areas depopulated, which could easily happen if there were no subsidies to help the people living there. Therefore, I welcome that proposal.

I am concerned about the coverage. A considerable amount of land which is less favoured or with specific handicaps will qualify for subsidies. In the Holsworthy district there is a vast area of poor clay land which is wet and full of rushes. The owners of that land will not receive the aid that is required. Help of this nature should be given in less favoured areas which have specific handicaps. Indeed, in some hill areas there are better soil conditions than in the areas I have mentioned.

I am unhappy about the headage payments. The majority of farmers are capable, and upright, in ensuring that they have only enough stock to cover their land. Headage payments tend to encourage the keeping of more cattle than necessary. During a winter such as the present, headage payments mean that more cattle are kept than the land can support. Perhaps the Government will look at other ways of giving subsidies.

The document stresses the need for flexibility. That is right. I hope that the Minister will look at the problems and be flexible in his plans and policies to deal with them. We do not want a blanket-type of subsidy. The subsidy must be of a flexible type. There should not only be a headage payment, or another method of dealing with stock, but help should be given with fencing, fertilisers and the improvement of land. That is where the nation will benefit.

When I farmed a hill cow area I improved the land so much that the Minister of Agriculture inspector told me that I no longer qualified for the subsidy. I asked him what he expected me to do with these subsidies, and whether I should buy a fur coat for my wife. He could not answer. Land should be improved so that its stock-carrying capacity can be increased to the benefit of the country.

I have a very great interest in Northern Ireland. When I was Minister in charge of agriculture there I fought hard to ensure that the western areas, and not only the hill cow areas, of Northern Ireland came within the scope of subsidies. The Government of Eire gives an almost blanket coverage to all the areas bordering on Fermanagh and similar areas. Great trouble will be caused if the farmers on the Eire side of the border receive subsidies while those on the Northern Ireland side, apart from the hill cow farmers, do not.

I fought very hard, and I did not get an answer. I hope that the present Socialist Ministers are more successful than I was, because it is very important to Northern Ireland to see that that matter is covered.

I hope that right hon. and hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies will not object to my mentioning it. It is a very important point.

10.50 p.m.

The hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) has brought us back to the realities of agriculture. It may surprise some hon. Members to hear that I wish to address my remarks mainly to those realities, although I have to express my agreement with the comments of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell).

Everyone in this House agrees with national or international support for agriculture in some form or other. I happen to believe that national support is superior, simply because it can do all that the hon. Member for Devon, West wants. It can be directed expressly to the needs of an area, and the directing body—in this case, this House—can debate, decide and call to account the Minister responsible for that direction. We have all been happy with that to date. Unfortunately, that will be the case no longer. Instead of the man from Whitehall telling the hon. Member for Devon, West that he is phased out, in future it will be the man from Brussels. It is clear from the very nature of the document that that will be so.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the list of areas qualifying in this respect has been drawn up by the member countries as individual countries, and not by any nameless person sitting in Brussels?

I agree that that is so at the moment. But, as I develop my remarks, it may be that the hon. Gentleman will see that there is some point to what I am saying.

No one will disagree that the French system of support for agriculture, known as Mélanism, is popular in France. It would be with me if I were a Frenchman. I understand why it is. We have our own traditional supports for hill farmers and, speaking as a town constituent Member, I believe that we should support them.

The hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Howell) said that this proposal would be an encouragement to them. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) was with us when we debated the North Pennines Development Board, which was dismantled in precipitate haste by his Government. That was not the best way to encourage the proper development of hill farming areas which he now advocates.

That is the key to this debate. Although we agree with the principle, we disagree about the manner in which it is to be applied. In this document, we are changing a national system of support to an international system, and I fear that payments of the kind for which the hon. Member for Devon, West was asking, in respect of fencing and possibly in respect of drainage and other matters, may not be available under this new method. Instead, we shall have what the hon. Gentleman did not want, which is a blanket set of regulations to cover all social and agricultural conditions from Sicily to the Shetlands. That is a geographical fact which cannot be gainsaid.

For the benefit of our colleagues in the Scottish National Party, can my hon. Friend say how he would answer them if they put the same question but substituted the words "United Kingdom" and "EEC" with the words "Scotland" and "England"?

My hon. Friend's geography is not as good as his initial thinking. Although there are differences between the Shetlands and Cornwall, it is generally true to say that in the British Isles they run from east to west rather than from north to south—[Laughter.] Hon. Members who laugh are not aware of the agricultural characteristics of the United Kingdom. That is generally correct.

What is more, although there will always be differences, whatever area we have for support, the smaller the area in which we apply any one system, the more it can be applied to the needs of the area concerned.

My hon. Friend has read draft directive No. R/27/25. There are eight draft directives, each dealing with different member countries of the Community. He will have seen the point which was made earlier about these matters varying from country to country. Therefore, to suggest that there is one scheme covering the whole Community is to mislead the House.

I have read this document with great care, as my hon. Friend will realise when I proceed further.

It is true that each member State delineates the areas concerned—there are difficulties here—but it does not determine the grants and criteria within those areas. Therefore, while the areas are determined by each member State, the criteria on which those areas are determined are not. They are common. Indeed, the grants and aid available are also on an international basis. Therefore, my hon. Friend is only half correct.

The criteria which the document takes are matters of altitude, slope, percentage of national output of agriculture compared with other areas and the proportion of the population engaged in agriculture. Anybody comparing the situation with, say, Italy and Scotland will have considerable difficulty in making sure that the areas are of comparable need. This is a horrifying prospect for anybody who wishes to ensure some kind of equable treatment across the whole of the area.

The Commission points out some of the deficiencies in the areas suggested by France and Italy and says that, nevertheless, it is expedient to make some kind of recommendation. That immediately demonstrates the hideous difficulties which would be encountered in making some sort of comparability.

Another difficulty arises when dealing with matters such as the percentage of national output of agriculture or the proportion of the population engaged in agriculture. At the moment it is a proportion of the national output. If the Common Market is to try to produce equable economic conditions over the whole, how long will it be before the criteria will be related not to national output but to the agricultural output of and the averages for the Community? As I see it, the whole idea of the Common Market would inevitably lead to that at some future date.

I turn now to the Financial Annex. I want to take a European rather than the nationalistic view which I detected in some of the speeches by hon. Members who supported this proposal rather more fulsomely than I believe it merits.

I notice that France has a total of 3·3 million hectares and is to receive 60 million units of account. The United Kingdom has 7·6 million hectares and is to receive 96 million units of account. It may be that that figure takes account of the high proportions of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales which come within these criteria. This may be a fair and objective assessment of the relative needs of the United Kingdom and France, but bearing in mind the Massif Central and areas of alpine agriculture in France, I wonder whether the French Ministry of Agriculture would agree with that assessment. It has so far, but there may be difficulties in future. That point has not so far been mentioned.

The total shown in the Financial Annex approximates to 900 million units of account per annum. The Parliamentary Secretary did not deal with the total global figure when he introduced the document, but somewhat broadly and quickly dealt with what he thought would be the total advantage to this country.

The hon. Member for Norfolk, North said that 50,000 holdings would be affected. If that is correct, I think that £1,000 per holding per year in the areas concerned is not as high as some people had hoped. I hope that the Minister will give us some estimate of the figure that we might expect—at least, the median figure—for each holding, so that the confidence which hon. Members think that this document will provide will in fact be created. Without such figures the House can hardly welcome this document. I say this using the figures of 900 million units of account. One hon. Member mentioned £20 million, which is somewhat less.

Perhaps my hon. Friend can also tell us what sort of comparable support our hill areas get from our own domestic system. It is no use welcoming a change like this without knowing how the financial aspects will develop from the existing arrangements. I am including now not just the subsidies for a hill area but other subsidies for drainage, fencing and other specific matters which the Minister might provide and which might not now be available in the Common Market. Would the Minister confirm that the specific grants that the hon. Member for Devon, West asked about will not now be available? If they are, will the money be provided by the Community?

For all these reasons, I cannot give this document the wholehearted welcome that other hon. Members have given. There are aspects which will cause difficulty because of the varying nature of farming and the social systems over which a single support system will operate. I believe that, as time goes on, criteria common to the Common Market will provide, through the comparability discussions which must take place, an even more generalised and blanket style of bureaucratic operation of this scheme than we might have had were it confined to the United Kingdom.

11.3 p.m.

I should like to take up the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). The Minister has admitted that we are taking note of a document which restricts subsidy payments to pensioners, yet he has asked us to decline to approve such a restriction. It seems that we are opening the doors tonight—to many of us, who are opposed to our membership of the EEC, they are very welcome doors—to Committee stage discussions of these various directives. Will anything now prevent hon. Members from tabling amendments to draft directives, refusing to approve various provisions?

I hope that the Government are not playing with the House or saying, in effect, "Strengthen our hand, but if we are in difficulty we shall have to concede." Surely they are acting in good faith and want it on record that the House will not accept this provision. If the Council of Ministers does not heed our decision, and brings in this restriction on the payment of the subsidy regardless, what will the Government do? Will they say: "We have taken our stand. On our invitation, Parliament has declined to approve this provision."? Will the Government merely ask the House for powers to strengthen their hand in the negotiations, and when they find that they cannot carry the day at Brussels, come back to Westminster and admit that fact? The Government must tell us whether that will be their attitude to other draft directives which will come before the House.

I welcome that the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) still retains his love for Northern Ireland. I hope that he will continue to express his view about those things he feels are best for Northern Ireland, drawing on his experience as a former Minister responsible for Northern Ireland agriculture. Page 31 of the document bears out what the hon. Member was saying. The list of counties there includes all the counties, not only the areas which are hill country. They are listed there and they include Donegal, Monaghan, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Roscommon, Clare, Kerry and so on. Of course the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) could rhyme those names off without reading them.

It is now quite evident from the document that the Government of the Republic do not act according to the same criteria as that used by the United Kingdom. There is a careful selection of counties in Northern Ireland. The whole of Fermanagh, Tyrone and North Antrim are not mentioned. The hon. Member for Belfast, West comes to North Antrim to breathe good fresh air at times and to play the mouth organ. He is certainly better employed playing the mouth organ than speaking in this House.

May I interject some specialist knowledge here? Is it not a fact that these definitions are geological and petrological rather than geomorphological? Am I not correct in my understanding that Southern Ireland is a bog?

Order. I can assure the hon. Member for Antrim North (Rev. Ian Paisley) that the hon. Member for Dudley, West (Dr. Phipps) used parliamentary language.

So that may be, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but with all respect to you there are many things expressed in parliamentary language which are still balderdash.

It is unfair for the farming community north of the border to be denied the subsidy while its counterparts south of the border are able to claim it. Why is it that cattle can be brought across the border, go through the process of a sale in Northern Ireland, claiming the subsidy, and then be taken back across the border and claim the subsidy in the South as well? I have checked on this with the Northern Ireland Ministry of Agriculture and I have been told that 8 per cent. of cattle being sold in the ring at Omagh market have gone through this process.

It has jumped from 2 per cent. to 8 per cent. in past weeks. Farmers in the North are being put at an even greater disadvantage. What steps does the Minister intend to take on this important matter?

11.10 p.m.

As a member of the Select Committee on Procedure, I congratulate the two Front Bench spokesmen on taking only 12 minutes to open this 90-minute debate. That is a great improvement on the previous debate of this kind, giving us much more opportunity to discuss the issues.

The agricultural issues raised tonight are not major, but the issue first raised by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) is. It is a pity that only two members of the Select Committee are present, because that issue is of extreme importance to future debates on European subordinate legislation.

When I joined the Select Committee as a Member of only 11 months' standing, I asked the Chairman what would be the effect of voting not to take note on a take-note motion. If we do so after a debate lasting for an hour and half, does that debate not exist? I did not receive a satisfactory answer. Tonight we have an amendment to such a motion, so we are not merely not taking note but are introducing an amendment that we shall not take note of something that is within the whole sphere of the take-note motion.

That is precisely the point of the discussion tonight. It is not an amendment. It is part of the motion which the Government have tabled. That is a vital point.

I accept that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I was about to come on to the difficulty raised by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), that we could get ourselves into the unsatisfactory position of having take-note motions on European legislation which were open to a series of amendments. I was tempted earlier tonight to vote against the motion on the grounds that it was an unsatisfactory precedent for the House.

My hon. Friend the Minister has to go to the Council of Ministers in Brussels to negotiate with other Ministers a policy for the EEC, and particularly one referring specifically to the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend will agree that we are not discussing United Kingdom legislation, and we can hardly just take note of legislation. What he is therefore saying is that the House cannot instruct any Minister on a particular ground to dissent from any of the regulations or directives.

I am not saying that. Of course, we can advise a Minister, direct a Minister by a vote in the House, that we would prefer legislation within the EEC to be of a certain form. But we cannot tell him "You will go to Brussels and we as members of the EEC will adopt a dog-in-the-manger attitude." If the requirement of the House is not acceptable there, he cannot say "That's it, boys. I have the ball. We are no longer going to play football. I am taking my ball home."

The House must take a decision as to the reality of our membership of the Community. If we are coming out, what has been said is absolutely right. If we are to continue to be a member we shall always be in the position of having to arrive with other members at a satisfactory and suitable arrangement on a whole host of issues. There is no way in which the House can say to a Minister "You will go to Brussels and you will not budget from this position."

At the moment the position is precisely the reverse. The Minister is saying that to the House, not the House to the Minister. It is part of the governmental commitment that the Minister who goes to Brussels will not accept a decision unless it meets certain conditions.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. That is the point that I made initially. That is why I believe that this form of amendment by the Government to a take-note motion is an extremely bad precedent for the House. It is something that we should not follow. I do not believe that we should put ourselves into the position of sending a Minister to Brussels who is unable to negotiate if we are to remain a member of the Community. If we are creating precedents which will remain in force if we decide to remain in the Community following a referendum it is most important that we should consider the precedents that we are creating and ensure that they do not shackle Ministers in negotiations in Europe, where they will, I hope and trust, be negotiating for the full benefit of the British people.

11.17 p.m.

As we reach almost the end of the debate there is not time for me to say anything except that it is particularly disappointing that Members who wish to talk about procedure should prevent those who have an interest in farming from taking part.

I have a particular interest in Scottish hill farming. As a result of the time that has been taken in dealing with procedure it has not been possible for me to talk about it tonight.

11.18 p.m.

The importance of hill farming both as an essential component part of the pattern of agricultural production in the United Kingdom and as a contributor to local economies in rural areas where other forms of economic activity are often limited cannot be over-emphasised. It is for those two reasons that the House must carefully consider the implications for our hill areas that are contained in the proposals before us.

We would like to take the opportunity of clarifying a few matters as to regarding the effect of the proposals on our hill farmers. The first matter concerns the determination of the less favoured areas and those areas with special handicaps. My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) mentioned the fact that determination was based on certain criteria which are not homogeneous throughout the whole of the Community of Eight but which are drawn up to take account of local situations. The initial list has been drawn up by our Ministry and has been accepted by the Commission in Brussels. We would welcome an assurance from the Minister that this degree of flexibility will continue so that if at some future stage we feel that the areas need modifying or extending we shall be in a position to make the necessary recommendations.

The second query relates to compensatory or headage payments. We have seen difficulties being faced by our hill farmers partly as a consequence of their over-stocking. That in part is due to the fact that the present form of assistance is based on a headage payment alone. Whether or not we are members of the Community there are many who feel that we should move away from a purely headage payment to one which includes an element of quality or some other characteristic, and we should welcome an indication of the Government's thinking.

We should like to know whether there is any limit on the maximum amount an individual moorland farmer is permitted to receive under the proposals providing that his stocking ratios satisfy the necessary criteria. Perhaps the Minister will say how the suggested stocking ratios compare with those used by his Department in determining the number of animals eligible for the hill cow subsidy.

We should welcome clarification of how these schemes fit in with the existing methods of improving upland farms, for example, the capital grant scheme for modernisation of buildings, land drainage, land reclamation and the rest. Clarification of the relationship between the draft proposal and the proposals outlined in the EEC directive 72/159 on the subject of farm development and modernisation would be helpful to the House.

The Opposition welcome the assistance to be given to our hill areas, in part from Community funds. This help is a clear indication that the common agricultural policy is not a sacred cow but can be adapted to meet individual national interests. We hope that the assistance will help to restore much needed confidence to our hill farmers.

11.23 p.m.

We have had an interesting debate in which a record number of speakers have taken part. I start with the point raised by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and amplified by others, including my hon. Friends the Members for Farnworth (Mr. Roper), Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and Dudley, West (Mr. Phipps). The right hon. Member for Down, South is right in saying that on this occasion the Government are going one step further than simply accepting an amendment tabled by hon. Members. But the difference between the Government accepting an amendment tabled by hon. Members and the Government volunteering this qualification in the motion is not so substantial. I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the bulk of what he said would apply equally to this occasion as to the occasion when we debated sugar.

The right hon. Gentleman seemed almost to regard the regulations as regulations which would automatically become law in this country. As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman recognises, we are talking about a directive which will be applied in this country through the existing legislation for the payment of hill cow and hill sheep subsidies. What we are saying, and what we are volunteering in this motion, is that although we ask the House to take note of the directive we do not intend, in practice, to put a restriction on payments to pensioners. That means concluding a successful understanding with our partners in Brussels, and I think it has to be accepted—this is the essence of the Community, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, West said—that in all these debates we are talking about a situation in which the Government are going forward to negotiate on the basis of certain Commission proposals.

Rather than wait until hon. Members table an amendment or raise a particular issue, we are here taking the initiative and saying in advance that we recognise that this is a matter of serious concern to us and it is not our intention, in practice, to limit payments to pensioners.

I presume that my hon. Friend accepts the decision taken by the House when it accepted the Foster Report and also the proposition that the Government should not disregard a resolution of the House on one of these instruments.

I accept that the Government cannot treat the House lightly and disregard its decisions or resolutions.

May I now deal with some of the agricultural points that have been raised. I thank the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Howell) for his kind opening remarks. I can tell him that the hill cow and hill sheep subsidies, which include the headage payment, and the winter keep element will remain, subject to what I have said about the problem of a possible limitation with regard to the intensity of stocking.

The hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks) raised the matter of stocking. This is the basis of one of our reservations to which I referred in my opening speech. It is one of the matters that we must get settled, because it is conceivable that, under the criteria laid down, a few farms might find that their stocking intensity is such, particularly where they are running sheep and cattle together, that they reach the upper limit payable on an acreage or hectare basis.

As regards the areas covered, I can tell the House that the Commission has accepted those areas to which we now pay subsidies.

No final decision has been taken about the legislative position, but we intend to use our present hill farm legislation to implement the directive by means of an order or orders made under existing parent legislation.

The hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells) raised the specific issue of the directive's relationship to sheep. As he knows, there is no EEC sheep meat regulation. At the moment, the directive will have no effect on this matter, nor on the arrangement for wool. Indeed, wool is regarded as an industrial commodity in the EEC, and if ever a sheep meat regulation is introduced it will not deal with wool which is outside the CAP.

I am sure hon. Members will accept that we have had a useful debate and will agree to take note of this document, subject to the qualification in the motion.

Question put:—

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr. Donald Coleman and Mr. John Ellis were appointed Tellers for the Ayes, but no Member being willing to act as Teller for the Noes, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER declared that the Ayes had it.


That this House takes note of Commission Document No. R/27/75 but declines to approve any restriction on the subsidy payments to pensioners.