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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 930: debated on Thursday 21 April 1977

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Agriculture, Fisheries And Food

Food Purchases

1.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether, in view of the problems being faced by the common agricultural policy, there are any plans to buy British food from the cheapest markets of the world.

Many foods are very efficiently produced within the United Kingdom and elsewhere within the Community. We shall continue to press for a flexible operation of the common agricultural policy.

Is it not the Government's bounden duty to try to help the British housewife by buying food wherever in the world it is cheapest? Is it not also a fact that, while the Ural Mountains are reputedly covered in butter, according to the Press, we are paying hundreds of millions of pounds which we ought not to have to pay? Therefore, is it not the duty of my right hon. Friend to fight for the abolition of this ridiculous policy, which everybody in Britain can see to be ridiculous, and as a last resort—or as a first resort—to get us out of the Common Market anyway?

I am bound to say that I was aware, even before my hon. Friend told me about them, of certain structural surpluses in foodstuffs, and I noted especially that there was a rather large mountain consisting of butter, though whether in the Urals I do not know. A certain amount of it appears to have gone in that direction. I am doing my best to assist in two ways. First, I am trying to obtain a more flexible approach to importation. Indeed, from 1st April the virtual ban on the importation of beef from outside the Community was lifted. Of course, my hon. Friend will be aware that I am trying to chip away at the butter mountain of which he spoke.

If it were desirable to obtain the cheapest food in the world irrespective of the interest of the farm worker, would it not to be equally desirable to obtain the cheapest coal in the world irrespective of the interest of the coal miner and to obtain the cheapest electricity in the world irrespective of the interest of the Secretary of State for Energy?

The hon. Gentleman is noted for his wide philosophy and learning, and for his knowledge of many minerals, and so on. I was asked about food. There is no question that the overwhelming majority of our housewives want to see food as cheaply as they can get it. The hon. Gentleman will have some difficulty in explaining to his constituents that that is not what he wants.

Animal Exports

2.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if there is sufficient capacity in the United Kingdom export-approved abattoirs to slaughter all animals at present exported live for slaughter.

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

The total number of cattle and sheep exported for slaughter in 1976 represented 1 per cent. of total slaughterings in the United Kingdom. I have little doubt that they could have been handled by export-approved abattoirs if the trade had so determined.

In that case, will the Minister announce that he will ban live exports? If not, will he say in whose interest the trade is being carried on, because it certainly is not in the animals' interest?

I know that the hon. Lady recognises that our policy on this matter derives from the motion passed in the House at the beginning of 1975. I make this point to her. Surely in these matters it is important to secure progress on a basis wider than the United Kingdom—and great progress is being made in Europe partly as a result of the British Government's stance.

Who are the people who justify this horrible export trade? Who is making money out of it? If it is only a small section of the community, is there not a very strong case for cutting out this export trade altogether?

I fully share my hon. Friend's objective, which I presume is to avoid any cruelty to animals in transportation. But if we can secure adequate standards—and we must remember that there is transportation of animals within the United Kingdom to the islands off Scotland—I think that the important thing is to see that the animals are transported according to high standards. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government are absolutely insistent—and we refuse many applications—that no animals should be allowed to travel to any countries where we feel that the transport arrangements are inadequate or that they are likely to be slaughtered in a cruel way.

But will the Minister actively encourage the export of meat on a deadweight basis? Will he bear in mind that that allows customers to have the meat cut and dealt with in the way they wish? Finally, will he join with me in congratulating North Devon Meat Ltd. of Torrington, which has been in the forefront of exporting on a deadweight basis and has just received the Queen's Award?

I am glad to be able to inform the hon. Gentleman that the Government are doing precisely as he requests in this regard. It is only a few months since my right hon. Friend announced a very generous scheme of grants to encourage export slaughter-houses to improve their standards.

Pigs

4.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will make a statement on the current trading position of pig producers.

14.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what progress he has made in achieving a change in the method by which pigmeat monetary compensation amounts are calculated.

25.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what action he is taking to ensure that pigmeat production is maintained at a satisfactory level.

The average market price for pigs has improved since the end of March but I am well aware that producers continue to face difficulties. I shall continue to press for a reduction in the monetary compensatory amounts paid on our imports of pigmeat, which would improve the competitive position of our producers and processors. I have introduced a temporary subsidy to help producers in the shorter term and have maintained it in the face of considerable pressure. The weekly rate of sow slaughtering is now declining.

Since the January measures have manifestly not worked, will the Minister now try seriously to obtain a European solution to the problem? Will this not require considerably more conciliation and diplomacy than he has displayed in Europe in recent weeks?

If I were able to employ all the charm and all the endearments of which the hon. Gentleman is capable, it still would not alter the economic facts that certain countries and certain foreign pig producers would feel that they were economically hurt. This has been the difficulty all along. The point about the subsidy was to try to prevent as much as I could of slaughtering in the sow herd. That is why the figures are rather revealing. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that at the peak nearly 10,000 sows per week were being slaughtered. The latest weekly figures, published today, show sow slaughterings at 7,000.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is an appreciation of the temporary measure that he took but that, at some time or other, the 50p a score will have to be replaced by some other system? Is he aware that the view of pig producers is that the industry is in a very parlous state? Will he do everything he possibly can to make certain that the pig population does not fall any more than it has already fallen?

I readily give the hon. Gentleman that assurance and I am grateful to him for what he said about the temporary subsidy. As he knows, I am being taken to court for it, and this inevitably means that I cannot be seen at the moment to be increasing the subsidy or thinking of increasing it. I think that in future there will be a change in the monetary compensatory amounts. As I have said, there are many ways in which we can achieve that. I have been working and will continue to work to get that result.

Does the Minister realise that part of the difficulty is that he missed the boat last October, when, by making a modest devaluation of the green pound, he could have got a reorganisation of the monetary compensatory amounts, which would have avoided most of this difficulty? Will he stop using the bogus argument about fewer sows being slaughtered? Since the Government have presided over a decline in the pig breeding herd of 15 per cent., it is hardly surprising that there are fewer pigs left to be slaughtered.

To adopt the words of the Duke of Wellington to the man who addressed him as Mr. Smith, if the hon. Gentleman believes that, he will believe anything. The truth of the matter is that in October last the Commission, in whose power it was, made a reduction in the pigmeat monetary compensatory amounts as the result only of my intervention. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not know his history. He does not know anything about it. It made an 8 per cent. cut, and there was no question at the time—and there has been no question since—that the Danes, the Germans or the Dutch would be willing to make a change in exchange for a green pound devaluation. If the hon. Gentleman thinks about the issue for a moment, he will realise that a green pound devaluation would cut their competitive position.

Would not the Minister agree that the majority of pig producers are in favour of changing the monetary compensatory amounts and not devaluing the green pound?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he knows what he is talking about. A green pound devaluation means an increase in cereal costs. The matter is as simple as that.

Apple Proliferation

5.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what steps he is taking to ensure that the disease known as apple proliferation does not become established in the United Kingdom.

I am advised that it is most unlikely that this disease could become established in our climatic conditions, but we have nevertheless no intention of relaxing our requirement that trees of orchard varieties imported from countries in which apple proliferation occurs must come from nurseries inspected and found free from the disease.

Will the Minister recognise that there are a number of diseases, such as white rust, sharker and fire blight, that have become endemic in this country over the past few years? Is he aware that the apple industry is very concerned that apple proliferation could become established? Will he work towards developing a Community solution of preventative controls in respect of this problem?

I gather that this disease is more of a problem in Southern and Eastern Europe than, for example, in Northern Europe. In parts of Germany there has been no difficulty in wiping out the disease. I assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that we intend to maintain the maximum vigilance in respect of this and all other disease threats from the Continent.

Agricultural Techniques

6.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he is planning to encourage the introduction of European agriculture techniques into British agriculture.

The Ministry's Agricultural Development and Advisory Service for England and Wales and the three Scottish colleges of agriculture are responsible for keeping abreast of new techniques in Europe and the rest of the world where these are relevant to British agriculture. Information obtained is disseminated as part of the continuing advisory effort.

Could my hon. Friend clarify the gobbledegook that he has just read out in terms of the effect that the introduction of some of the new techniques may have on the whole price struc- ture of food which now faces the British housewife?

The confusion arises because the phrase "agricultural Techniques" normally applies to more efficient systems of production. I imagine that what my hon. Friend is concerned about is the application of traditional EEC support arrangements for agricultural produce in this country. I am sure he will recognise that we are doing our level best in the Community to avoid the creation of structural surpluses and to see that, when they arise, they are sensibly disposed of.

Does not the Minister agree that it would be better to turn the question on its head? Would it not be better to see whether our European partners could change their sales techniques so that they might go and sell some of the milk that they produce? Might they not also adopt our excellent system of marketing boards?

I agree with the tenor of the hon. Gentleman's remarks in respect of marketing boards. We have already described these as an excellent example of practical Socialism which we are determined to retain here. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That is true. It is the negation of a free market in the arrangements for milk: it is a properly controlled market with a fixed price both for the producer and for the consumer. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing everything we can to see that there is a satisfactory solution on the subject of marketing boards and that the doubt is removed as swiftly as possible.

National Farmers Union

7.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what recent consultations he has had with the National Farmers Union.

Is the Minister aware that with each of these consultations the confidence of British farmers in him appears to grow steadily less, especially when they compare his attempted assurances with the kind of speech he made in Grimsby earlier this week? Is it not time that both he and his hon. Friend stated the truth—that British consumers have an overriding interest in a healthy and confident British farming industry—and acted accordingly?

That was a very vague and wide supplementary question. My speech in Grimsby was almost entirely devoted to an attack upon the Conservative Party, and, as we all know, farmers are Labour voters to a man. As for retaining their confidence, that will, I hope and trust, be retained by a policy which is fair to them, to the consumer and to the housewife who buys their food products. If the policy is fair to them, we shall not only have the right quantity of food produced at the right price but the right consumption of that food. That is exactly what I am after.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the firm stand he is taking against higher food prices is receiving the support of everyone in the country except the Tory Front Bench? Is he also aware that he will receive even further support if he resists any further increases in food prices?

I certainly believe that there is very strong feeling in the country about food prices, but I would not say that the whole Tory Front Bench—what there is of it present at the moment—is definitely against lower or reasonable food prices. Here and there there may be someone, not present today, who may actually be in favour of reasonable food prices.

Did the Council of the National Farmers Union yesterday explain to the Minister that it is worried that his posturings in Brussels are souring the British position and will make it much more difficult to deal with important issues such as fisheries and the future of the marketing boards? Did he explain to the farmers just how, as he goes about the country saying that he still subscribes to the aims of the White Paper "Food from Our Own Resources", he intends to fulfil those targets?

The answer to the second question is "Yes, I did" As to the first, farmers are kind, courteous, hospitable people and would not have dreamed of discussing fisheries with me. As for the point about souring our relations, I can only say that I am after something reasonable for our own farmers and producers and for the British housewife. I am interested to note that my efforts are not going totally unrewarded in Europe. Mr. Gundelach said yesterday that he had made an offer to us which was without precedent in the history of the Community and which took into account the special problems of the United Kingdom consumer. Clearly, therefore, I have an ally now.

Food Prices

8.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what are the latest figures available for the effect of Common Market membership on the price of food in the United Kingdom; and if he will make a statement.

24.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is his estimate of the extra cost the United Kingdom incurred as a result of buying imported food from the EEC as against outside sources in 1976.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. E. S. Bishop)

Between February 1973 and March 1977 the index of retail food prices increased by about 120 per cent. I regret that we cannot assess the contribution to this increase arising from our membership of the European Community because of the difficulty of predicting how food prices would have changed had we remained outside.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the contribution of the Common Market is still considerable? Will he pass on to his right hon. Friend the congratulations of the great majority of British housewives on the resistance he has shown so far to Common Market pricing policy? Will he ask his right hon. Friend to commit himself before the House to continuing to resist the CAP pricing policies, irrespective of any blackmail from our so-called partners in the Community or from the powerful farmers' lobby?

Clearly, my hon. Friend recognises the changes that we are trying to bring about in the CAP. I think the House will agree that we should seek a "cap" which fits my right hon. Friend and those whom he represents, and that we should not wear a cap which fits the Community but makes the United Kingdom look ridiculous. That would be the peak of foolishness.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the latest edition of the Cambridge Economic Policy Review gave a detailed analysis of the cost of the common agricultural policy to Britain? Is he further aware that it showed clearly that, far from there being any kind of subsidy, including the effects of the green pound it was costing Britain at least £600 million a year, and that if the demand of the Tories concerning the green pound were accepted it would rise to between £900 million and £1,000 million a year?

Is my hon. Friend also aware of the recent article in The Guardian which made clear that, because we are prevented from buying food from the cheapest quarter, membership of the Community is costing Britain £700 million a year? Will he also agree that the suggestion from the previous Prime Minister that we were renegotiating this farcical policy was an absolute sham?

I think that the reception given by the House to my right hon. Friend's reply indicates that there is a great deal of support for the policy he is pursuing in the Community. Of course my hon. Friend is right, in so far as he is talking about the increased costs this year. The transitional steps will add considerably to the cost of living, and I think it justifies the very firm stand that we are taking in the Community to offset these costs.

To help his hon. Friends behind him, and, indeed, housewives, would the Minister like to say by how much accession to the Common Market has increased the prices of coffee and tea?

If the hon. Member had listened to my original reply, he would have heard me say that it is very difficult to say to what extent the increases are due to the Common Market and other factors. There are, of course, some increases due to factors outside the Community, such as the increase in coffee prices and, of course, last year's shortage of potatoes. We know, however, of certain increases which are due to Common Market membership, and we are right to ask the Community to take this into account.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the housewives of Grimsby as shown by recent doorstep interviews, are vey much aware that the Common Market contributes greatly towards the high cost of food? The housewives are also aware of the wastefulness of the surpluses that the CAP produces. Would he, therefore, ask his right hon. Friend to recommend to the whole Government at the next Cabinet meeting that we withdraw from the Common Market?

Subject to our having that kind of freedom, I think that we are pursuing the right policy at the present time in seeking to make the necessary changes to help the housewife as well as the producer. I am quite sure that the housewives and other people of Grimsby, who were interested not only in fish but also in food, will admire the strong efforts made in that direction.

Butler Imports

10.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how imports of butter from inside and outside the EEC over the past three months compare with the same period a year earlier.

The figures available to us show that during the three-month period up to the end of February 1977 42,151 metric tons of butter was imported from the rest of the Community and 43,422 metric tons from countries outside. Comparable figures for the same period a year earlier were 84,488 and 21,617 metric tons respectively.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, which demonstrates again how the high Common Market prices have depressed consumption. Could he say whether there is any basis for the claim by the Danish Dairy Federation that butter is now being stockpiled in this country in the hope that advantage will be taken of the fact that butter prices will rise by 18p per lb. by the end of the year?

As my hon. Friend knows, the two transitional steps, which have yet to be taken this year, will, once they are taken, increase the price of butter by about 12p or 13p per lb. There is no doubt about that. But that has been known ever since the Treaty of Accession. Therefore, those making their calculations on stocks have had a good length of time to prepare, if that is what they are preparing for.

I have not sufficient information to say "Yes" or "No" to my hon. Friend's question, except that commercial stocks, which probably are as good a guide as any, at the moment are about 119,000 metric tons, which is pretty well where they have been during the past two years or so.

In view of the increase in the price of butter that is to take place, and in view of the fact that the EEC is pressing for a margarine tax, can my right hon. Friend say what the British housewife is to put on her bread in the future?

Common Agricultural Policy

12.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what plans he now has for proposing a comprehensive review of the common agricultural policy.

I have made plain on many occasions my views on the common agricultural policy and on the ways in which we should seek improvements.

Has not the passage of time and the progressive expansion of the Community somewhat altered the original basis of the CAP? An increasing European urban electorate and a declining agricultural vote must surely imply an increase in consumer pressures. Is the right hon. Gentleman convinced, in his capacity as President of the Council, that the representatives of European consumer associations enjoy a properly structured relationship to the institutions of the Community?

If I may say so, I think that that is a very valuable supplementary question. I believe that we are at a change—a sea change, perhaps—in the basis of the CAP. I was the first President of the Council ever to receive a deputation of European consumers. Until now the deputations have always come from COPA, and it is right that they should. Obviously, the producers have a very firm interest in the workings of an Agriculture Council. But this was the first time that the consumers came, and I venture to suggest that they have an equal voice in the workings of the Council too. As far as I am concerned—and, I hope, as far as any Minister who succeeds me is concerned—that must be the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that if after a certain period of time—say, six months—there has not been a fundamental change in the Common Market agricultural policy, the Government—and I would hope that he would put this to his Cabinet colleagues—should consider breaking with the Common Market and coming out? We cannot tolerate any longer this constant rise in prices burdening the British people, as it does at the present time.

As the first supplementary question showed, there is, I think, a change taking place in the relationship not just of British consumers and British people with the workings of the common agricultural policy but in Europe as a whole. I believe that it is our duty to build upon that and to build upon it quickly. I do not believe that we shall get fundamental revolutionary changes in a matter of six months. I believe that the process of change has started, and I intend, as far as I can, to continue that process so that we get the best possible improvement we can.

Further to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Arnold), is it not now evident that there are improvements in animal husbandry in continental Europe which mean that dairy surpluses, far from being occasional, will become endemic? Given that the current structure of the common agricultural policy persists, will it not result in the British consumer being obliged to accept a bed of nails? In those circumstances, would it not be better to secure an early fundamental restructuring of the common agricultural policy rather than for it to collapse under its own absurdities and in so doing embitter other European relationships as well?

I believe that the hon. Gentleman is right in putting first and foremost the question of the structural surpluses. They are the vital question in the agricultural policy. He is also right, by implication, in believing that the agricultural policy is the main fundamental economic spring of the European Economic Community. I think that we are on the way to dealing with it, but we shall deal with it only if we realise one factor as a Community and as a country. The only reason why we are creating a structural surplus in food is that we are producing it at a figure that is too high for people to consume it. If we then say "Let our policy be that producers and consumers both shall benefit", I think that we can see an end to structural surpluses.

Since my hon. Friend is making the point that a fundamental change is about to take place, will he consider, together with his Cabinet colleagues, since no renegotiations took place last time before the referendum of 1975, whether it would be a good idea, because of all these changes, to give the British people an opportunity to have another vote after these so-called changes take place, in order that they may cast a true vote this time without being brainwashed by the pro-Market organisations both inside and outside the House—a vote on the basis of the practical things that have arisen from our joining the Common Market, namely, escalating food prices one after another, day after day, whichever Government are in power?

I understand very much my hon. Friend's point of view. But I hope he will allow me for next few days to get on with the urgent question of trying to settle the price review. Then we can return to other, wider issues.

Does not the Minister agree that cheap food and a common agricultural policy are totally incompatible and that it would be in the interests of both the producer and the consumer for Britain to opt out of the CAP on some commodities and return to a system of deficiency payments?

The common agricultural policy has, as I have said, been so oriented so far that it has inevitably created structural surpluses of food which the consumer could in fact consume quite well if the price was right. Let us see if we can get that straight. There is a fundamental amount of rethinking needed on the whole basis; with that I agree absolutely. But my first task as Minister of Agriculture is to see that the price review is settled. Then, possibly, we can think about these rather important questions that have been raised.

Dairy Industry

13.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he is satisfied with the prospects for the United Kingdom dairy industry; and if he will make a staement.

The Government's policy towards the dairy industry continues to be set out in the White Paper, "Food from Our Own Resources", Cmnd. 6020. which envisages further expansion.

Is the Minister aware that the dairy industry is totally dissatisfied with the present type of price review and that his right hon. Friend referred to this when answering a recent Question? Is he aware that it does not allow the industry to invest and plan ahead as it is asked to do in accordance with the objectives and targets of "Food from Our Own Resources"? Bearing in mind the importance to the dairy industry of the Milk Marketing Board, will the Minister advise the House on the present position of the board and say whether we shall be able to retain it, since it is so important to the dairy industry?

The hon. Gentleman should realise that the level of the United Kingdom guaranteeed price will need to be considered in the light of the CAP settlement for this year. He talked about herd size. He should be aware that the herd size has been expanding since June 1976. The December 1976 sample census showed an increase of 2·4 per cent. in the number of dairy cows over the corresponding figure a year ago. In addition, milk production has increased.

As regards the Milk Marketing Board, we have made our position clear. We want to retain the essential functions of the board, and we believe that the board, in its organisation and work, is an example to the rest of the community.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, although there are perhaps endemic milk surpluses in Europe at present, there is also evidence that there is likely to be a beef shortage in many areas within the Community, possibly even by the end of the year? If that is so, will it not strengthen my right hon. Friend's ability to make the necessary amendments to the CAP and to secure a shift in the structure of farming if we improve grassland production in Britain and Ireland?

My hon. Friend has made an important point. We have always said that the Community should encourage those areas where there is efficient production and discourage the others. That would, of course, help to deal with the problem of surpluses. My hon. Friend will be aware of the fight that we have had to maintain the beef premium scheme, at least for this year. We shall certainly bear in mind the need to discourage surpluses and to ensure production in the most efficient areas.

European Community Commissioner For Agriculture

15.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met Mr. Gundelach, Commissioner for Agriculture.

At last month's Agriculture Council. I am, however, to have discussions with him later today.

The right hon. Gentleman is reported as holding out in the Common Market negotiations for a substantial butter subsidy, the continuation of the beef premium and the retention of the Milk Marketing Board. Will he say by how much he estimates that United Kingdom food prices will go up this year if all his conditions are met?

No, I do not at this moment intend to enter into details about the negotiations. I think that that would be wrong. I hope that by Tuesday or Wednesday of next week we shall get a package of which the House and the country will approve. I think that that will be the correct time to give all the necessary information. It would mean tying my hands a little too much—although I appreciate the friendliness of the hon. Gentleman's question—to answer him in detail at present.

As it seems to be endemic within the CAP to build moun- tains of butter and beef, can my hon. Friend assure me that, next time a mountain is disposed of, it will go to the people of this country in greatest need?

That, in part, is what I am trying to achieve. It is a very interesting statistical fact that more butter per head of the population is consumed by old-age pensioners and by those earning under £30 a week than among the higher income groups. That is a factor which I take very much into account in by belief that a butter subsidy is of importance to the British people.

When the Minister meets Mr. Gundelach, will he ask him what on earth is happening to the negotiations with Iceland? Will he also ask him what progress is being made about the fisheries limits around these islands?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I had intended to ask Mr. Gundelach myself despite the hon. Gentleman's question. It seems to me that these are matters which require urgent consideration. However, it is good that for the present six months a British President of the Council will be accompanying the Commissioner to the resumed negotiations in Iceland. Further more, it is of great importance that the Commissioner has promised us that his proposals for the internal régime will be available this month.

Gill Nets

17.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he has any plans to ban the carrying at sea of gill nets intended to be used for cod fishing.

Will the hon. Gentleman confer with his Scottish counterpart, because there are rumours that that right hon. Gentleman may indeed be considering such a measure? Will he also make it clear to the fishing industry that the measure will not be proceeded with, as there is a great deal of concern among fishermen who have invested money in nets of this kind?

I think that the answer which I gave may be reassuring to the hon. Member. His concern probably arises from the use of gill nets for salmon and other means of fishing. I understand that these matters are under review.

Can my hon. Friend tell the House whether, when he has visited Humberside, he has met a vessel owner, skipper, deckhand or anyone in the industry who believes that Mr. Gundelach and his colleagues will get any settlement in the Icelandic dispute? Even worse, is he aware of the scepticism among all members of the industry about any settlement with third party agreements, particularly concerning Soviet waters?

Order. I think that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) is referring to the previous Question. I may be wrong, but this one appears to be about gill nets.

Mr. Speaker, please allow me to state that you are not wrong. I was hoping to get some information.

Can the Minister tell us whether he believes it fair that the Scots are the only fishermen in the EEC who are not allowed to drift-net for salmon? When will he do something about it?

This is a matter which concerns my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I believe that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the matter has been under review.

Prime Minister (Engagements)

Q1.

asked the Prime Minister whether he will list his official engagements for 21st April 1977.

Q3.

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for 21st April.

Q4.

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21st April.

Q8.

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his public engagements for 21st April.

This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be holding further meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

Has the Prime Minister had time to study today's statement by the Chairman of the National Coal Board? Why should the Secretary of State for Energy be allowed, first, to overrule the Price Commission by pushing up the price of gas and then to push up the price of electricity by compelling the Central Electricity Generating Board to commission a power station in excess of its needs, when all this is at the behest of the coal miners, whose response to the nation's needs has been to produce 6 million tons less last year?

I understand that there is a Private Notice Question on this matter. Therefore, I do not want to anticipate the answer that my right hon. Friend will give. In all these matters we as a community have to have regard not only to electricity requirements but to the future of the power plant industry, as well as to the future of the mining industry. They are all intertwined, and it is not easy to separate one issue which may be of particular concern to the electricity board. The Government must take the whole complex into account.

Will my right hon. Friend find time today to explain his remarks yesterday about the cynicism of the Press? Was he referring to that prizewinning cynical jackass, Andrew Alexander, or was he referring to that wonderful wizard of the Sunday Times, Tony Holden, who flies all over the Eastern Hemisphere with the Leader of the Opposition and reaches the heights of journalistic magic by managing to turn the cast-iron maiden into a rather cracked china doll?

I was making a general remark—not directed at the Press or at politicians—which I think is true, namely, that there is a degree of cynicism about almost anybody who is in public life, that no action is undertaken which does not have a hidden and unworthy motive, that everything done has something behind it, and that nothing altruistic is done by anyone in public life. That is very damaging to us. However, I was not referring to anybody in particular.

If my right hon. Friend can find the time today, will he spend some time re-reading the leaflet "Britain's New Deal in Europe", which was circulated by Her Majesty's Government to every family in the United Kingdom? Since that leaflet contains no reference to direct elections and concentrates on stressing the importance of veto powers in protecting Britain's sovereignty inside the EEC, will he tell us how he can justify his statement on Tuesday that a "Yes" vote in the referendum was a vote for direct elections?

I should prefer not go into that just now, because we are in the middle of a two-day debate in which the Government's attitude is being defined. Supplementary questions are not the appropriate occasion to go into the matter. [Interruption.] If the Houses wishes to spend 15 minutes on the matter, I am quite happy, but normally, Mr. Speaker, you like to separate Question Time from debating time on these matters.

If there is keenness and anxiety on the matter, let me say that it is clearly written into Article 138 that we shall move to a system of elections. That was explained—and, indeed, opposed—at the time, and the Government have entered into a commitment with the eight other Heads of Government to have direct elections. This House could overturn that decision, but it would be very ill advised to do so, because it would go far wider. When the Government have entered into a treaty commitment or something approaching a treaty commitment—both those being true in the sense that we have now agreed to the Treaty of Rome after the referendum—for the House to overturn the Government on this commitment would be a very serious matter in our international relations on a great many other issues, which would go far wider than the Community. It is for that reason, among others, that I shall use my best endeavours to see that a Bill is produced for consideration by the House.

No doubt the Prime Minister will be devoting some thinking time today to the subject of devolution. Will he now confirm or deny without equivocation that the Government are considering introducing two Bills, one for Scotland and one for Wales, as advocated all along by the Opposition?

I do not take any responsibility for stories that appear in the Press, and I am not required to answer from the Dispatch Box for them However, the Government's policy on the matter is clear. We are committed to devolution, both for Scotland and for Wales.

Did the Cabinet at its meeting this morning reach any clear decision whether to table a motion for Monday's business to enable the House to arrive at a specific decision on the kind of electoral system for direct elections in Europe? Does the Prime Minister not think it appropriate to do that after a full two days' debate, when he has already promised a free vote on his side and when there will be a free vote on the Opposition side?

Not on Monday, I gather. [Interruption.] Well, I have to take my instructions.

Although I do not normally discuss the business of Thursday morning Cabinet meetings, I can confirm to the right hon. Lady that we did discuss this matter this morning, and I was reminded then, as I have been reminded again, that what we undertook to do before the debate was that the Government would listen to the views of the House and would then come forward with a proposition in due course. That we shall adhere to. Although I considered a point put to me by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), which superficially had its attractions, I think that we must stick to the original intention that we conveyed to the House some weeks ago.

Why are the Government afraid to reach a specific decision on Monday night? It would save time in the drafting of the Bill. Why is the Prime Minister afraid to allow Parliament to express its opinion at the end of a full two-day debate? It is not surprising that both the Press and the public are cynical about the powers of Parliament if the Prime Minister refuses to allow us to reach a decision.

I promise the right hon. Lady that the decision has nothing to do with fear; it has to do with the undertaking that was given. We undertook to listen to all the views put forward in the House. There is not agreement on this matter, and we had better wait and hear what the result is at the end of the two days. [Interruption.] I fully understand that the Opposition are in considerable difficulties on this matter. Let me add that the Opposition are not alone in this matter, but it might be more helpful if the right hon. Lady were to admit her difficulties as I admit mine.

Tarporley

Q2.

asked the Prime Minister if he will pay an official visit to Tarporley.

Is the Prime Minister aware that Tarporley, where he would be most welcome, is in a rural area, where people are very dependent on motor transport? Will he tell the House whether the Government have any proposals for an alternative to the proposed increased tax on petrol in the Budget and, if so, what it might be?

The Cabinet has not considered this matter recently—certainly not since the Easter Recess—so I have no information to give to the House. The matter will be discussed during the course of the debate on the Second Reading of the Finance Bill, but it does come a little odd, after the pressure now being exerted on us to follow President Carter's advice and the steps that he is taking in the United States, to find that the Opposition voted as a whole against this increase in duty. As the Chancellor said in his speech, it was intended partially to help conserve fuel. Perhaps the Opposition would care to reconsider their views on this matter.

Whether my right hon. Friend goes to Tarporley or anywhere else, will he find time to study the statement made in another place yesterday by the noble Lord who is Master of the Rolls of the realm to the effect that certain records relating to the Profumo inquiry have been destroyed, and that only one copy was made? Can my right hon. Friend say on whose authority the records have been destroyed?

I am not aware that this is a matter of great moment in Tarporley, but it may be of interest to the House, as the question has been raised, to know that I checked on this matter this morning. It is true that Lord Denning suggested at one stage some time ago that the records should be destroyed. It was agreed that they should not be handed over as public records, but they have not been destroyed. They are still kept in the Cabinet Office. Lord Denning has been informed about this and I understand that he will make a statement later.

Liverpool, Walton

Q5.

asked the Prime Minister if he will pay an official visit to Liverpool, Walton.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we regret that he is at present unable to come to Walton? When he comes to Liverpool, and in the meantime when he meets the Leader of the Liberal Party, will he explain to him and to the Liberals in Liverpool that during the period when they were in office in Liverpool the rates were kept down not because of Liberal policies but because of the generous aid to the Liverpool City Council by the Labour Government by way of rate support grant?

Will he also indicate to the Liberals that despite that generous assistance from the Labour Government the Liberals practically bankrupted the financial resources of Liverpool and that the administration that has taken over is in a hell of a difficult position because of their financial incompetence?

There is no doubt that the Government's actions to assist by means of the rate support grant were the means of keeping the rates down in Liverpool and in a great many other cities. I am sure that that will be taken into account by all those who are claiming credit for themselves in the coming local elections.

Will the Prime Minister spend the time that he is not occupying by going to Walton in drafting motions which the Government will put on the Order Paper before 10 o'clock today, for debate on Monday, so that at the conclusion of the debate, when we have heard what everyone who catches Mr. Speaker's eye has to say, the House may come to a conclusion as to which of the alternative systems of election it wishes to adopt for direct elections to the European Parliament? Will the Prime Minister spend his time doing that?

When my right hon. Friend does visit Liverpool, will he go to Kirkby and explain to my constituents why unemployment there has not been significantly reduced in the past two years? Will he further explain how a further round of the pay policy will reduce unemployment in Kirkby and bring prosperity to that area?

On the latter part of that supplementary question, I would not say that a further round of incomes policy by itself will reduce unemployment. But what I do make clear to my hon. Friend—and he had better make this clear to his constituents and to his trade union colleagues—is that if there is free collective bargaining in which people can take what they can get, combined with control over the money supply, the inevitable result in the short run will be higher prices, and in the medium run—by which I mean by the end of this year—there will be higher unemployment in his constituency. That is why we are going for an incomes policy.

When the Prime Minister goes to Walton or to anywhere else, will he take time to call in at the nearest farm and use his undoubted expertise to tell the farmer how he can produce meat at £28 a hundredweight?

I do not think I care to undertake that task. I have great sympathy with some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman. I will say this about the work being done by the Minister of Agriculture at the present time: if he can secure the kind of settlement for which the Cabinet has given him authority, it will be the best settlement for the consumer under the common agricultural policy annual review since we entered the European Community. That is an achievement well worth noting.