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European Community (Horticulture)

Volume 958: debated on Thursday 16 November 1978

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asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representation and proposals he has made to EEC Agriculture Ministers and the Commission to promote fairer competition between the horticulture industries of member States, and, in particular, to reduce unfair subsidies on the energy costs of Continental growers.

The Government continue to be concerned that fair competition is maintained between the horticulture industries of member States and are prepared to pursue any prima facie case of unfair competition. However, I have no evidence that producers in other Community countries receive any unfair subsidy on fuel prices.

Will the Minister allow me to give him some prima facie evidence? Is it not a fact that Dutch growers have free piping of natural gas to their boiler houses, that the conversion of their boilers to gas has been grant-aided, and that a variety of Dutch growers' co-operatives are themselves grant-aided? If that is not unfair subsidy, I wonder what is. I wonder whether the Minister will take up those points.

No. I cannot accept that. The Government have gone into this matter very closely. There are, in fact, no subsidies in the Community on oil or gas for horticulture. Of course, there are capital grants available for such investment in Holland, as there are in the United Kingdom.

Does not my hon. Friend agree that the protracted process of equalisation of fuel costs for glasshouse growers in the Community has been grossly unfair to British glasshouse growers who have had to pay, and are still paying, about one-third more for their fuel? In these circumstances, cannot the Minister take urgent action to ensure that the process of equalisation is completed much more quickly than is proposed at present?

I am happy to inform my hon. Friend, who takes a deep interest in these matters, that since we last discussed this, equalisation has been reached. Hon. Members have to accept that production and transmission costs of natural gas in Holland are much lower. That is an economic fact of life that we cannot alter.

Will the Minister assure the House that the installation grants available to Dutch growers are on all fours with the installation grants available to us? It is my understanding that British growers do not do so well as Dutch growers on assistance with their capital expenditure.

I am happy to look into that detailed point, but one factor that must not be overlooked is that, whereas in Holland more than 95 per cent. of the units use natural gas, in the United Kingdom the comparable figure is less than 3 per cent. That derives from the fact that our units are much more dispersed. In many parts of this country, it is not an economic proposition to use natural gas.