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Horticulture Industry (Fuel Subsidy)

Volume 886: debated on Thursday 20 February 1975

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12.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has yet made a decision about the continuation of the fuel subsidy for glasshouse horticultural growers; and if he will make a statement.

My right hon. Friend has given careful consideration to this question and has come to the conclusion, in line with his orginal announcement on 11th April 1974, that the subsidy cannot be extended. We must all come to terms with higher energy costs, and the glasshouse sector had the help of the subsidy, totalling some £7 million, throughout 1974 to give it a breathing space.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that that statement will be greeted with utter dismay by glasshouse growers, who are in a special position because fuel represents such a large percentage of their costs compared with other industries?

I recognise that the announcement will be a severe disappointment to horticulture producers, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to appreciate that we, as a nation, cannot be unreasonable in terms of seeing that energy is used more effectively, and that these decisions, regrettable as they may be to horticulturists, have to be taken against the background of the Government's overall policy for energy conservation and the saving of oil imports.

Is my hon. Friend aware that many highly efficient growers in the Lea Valley and elsewhere will be in jeopardy as a result of this decision, while continental Governments are continuing to provide this sort of help for their growers? Does not my hon. Friend think that, in the interests of consumers as well as producers, it is vital that we should keep as many of these growers in business as possible?

I recognise and understand my hon. Friend's deep concern for and continuing interest in his horticulturist constituents. I assure him that the Government are most anxious to encourage the continued viability of the horticulture industry, but we have to come to terms with the energy situation in this country and, regrettable though it is, there are times when the Government have to take unpopular decisions in these matters.

To what use and in respect of what crops does the hon. Gentleman think the vast investment in glasshouses in recent years, amounting to more than £100 million, will be put? Does he not agree that the one thing horticulturists cannot stand, and ought not to be asked to stand, is unfair competition, and that it is crucial to put them on the same basis as their opposite numbers across the Channel?

On the matter of unfair competition, it is true that under the Community arrangements it will be possible for other member States to continue the subsidy until June. Our information is that, notwithstanding that, the total amount of money which we paid to horticulturists under the subsidy which has just ended compares favourably with what continental horticulturists and producers will receive in total.

I should point out to the right hon. Gentleman that this was always presented by the Government as a temporary subsidy. More specifically, we said that it was granted on a national basis—nothing to do with the Community—because oil prices shot up at the end of 1973 after producers had made their plans for production. That is not the case with the present crop.

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible opportunity.

—I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible opportunity.