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Growers (Gas Subsidies)

Volume 12: debated on Thursday 12 November 1981

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5.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he is now in a position to identify the specific action that he intends to take to deal with Dutch gas subsidies for growers, in view of the serious difficulties caused to British producers; and whether he will make a statement.

12.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he intends to take action in aid of the United Kingdom glasshouse industry.

We recognise the seriousness to our glasshouse growers of the continued artificially low prices being paid by Dutch growers for gas for glasshouse heating. We deplore the delay by the Commission and the Dutch Government in removing the distortion of competition.

We shall continue to maintain the greatest possible pressure on the Commission to settle the matter urgently.

Will my hon. Friend return to her office at 3.30 pm this afternoon, ring the Commissioner and say that the United Kingdom Parliament is not prepared to put up with such snail's pace progress any longer? Will she tell him that if nothing has been done by the end of the month she will dredge up some health regulation to stop the goods coming in to Britain?

I assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friends have made that point again and again. We hope to see some response very shortly.

Is the hon. Lady aware that the two largest glasshouses in my constituency have closed, with a fair number of redundancies? Help is almost too late. Now that we have the Chair in Brussels, can we not impose a tariff on Dutch tomatoes? I congratulate the Minister on introducing the welcome oil subsidy, but will it continue after December? It is important to know now, because it is time for planting.

It is for the Commission, not individual States, to decide to take tariff measures. My right hon. Friend has placed the matter fairly and squarely before the Commission. However, it does not feel able to take such action because of the circumstances. We have recently heard that the Commission is willing to extend the guidelines to enable the payment of an adaptation aid for another year. The Government are urgently considering the Commission's recent communication. I cannot at present anticipate the outcome.

My right hon. Friend was seen to nod his head when the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) asked whether the subsidy would continue after 1 January. Unfortunately, such nods do not appear in Hansard. On the assumption that the Europeans will drag their feet for ever, will the Minister give us a straight "Yes" or "No" about the continuation of that subsidy after 1 January?

I am sorry, but my hon. Friend will have to accept that I am not in a court of law. I assure my hon. Friend—and I trust that he will note the example of £5·5 million during the past year—that my right hon. Friends are determined to protect our glasshouse industry.

Is the hon. Lady aware that that is not good enough? In present circumstances, growers are refusing to prepare for next year. While we are waiting for a decision from the Government, growers are going out of business. We are giving the Dutch the means to take a larger share of the market than they have already taken. Is the hon. Lady aware that in 1977 the Dutch promised equalisation of fuel costs by 1979, and that from 1979 onwards the disparity in fuel prices has increased? Will the hon. Lady confirm that the subsidy will be continued and that countervailing tariffs will be imposed, if necessary, to protect our industry from destruction?

I have heard the hon. Gentleman speak in the House on this point many times and I know of his concern. I share his concern about the intolerable delay. He accurately set out a short history of the situation. I assure him that my right hon. Friends are determined to protect our glasshouse growers. The hon. Gentleman will know that the present adaptation aid continues to the end of the year. I know that growers are concerned about making plans for next year, and my right hon. Friend is fully aware of the need for urgent action.

Has my hon. Friend been informed that the net loss per acre to tomato growers in the last season has been estimated—I believe accurately—at £19,000 and that in the same period imports of Dutch trays of tomatoes increased by over £30,000? Decisions in the industry must be taken now, at this hour. How can the Government expect any confidence to remain in that sector of the industry unless action is taken soon or some earnest of intention to do something is given? Does the Minister agree that no longer can we wait for the Commission?

I thought that my hon. Friend would take as an example of our earnest to do something the securing by my right hon. Friend of the £5·5 million adaptation this year to defend our glasshouse growers. I trust that my hon. Friend will regard that as a good example.

Does the hon. Lady accept the feelings of the whole House that her unwillingness to give a clear-cut commitment in mid-November that the subsidy will continue after 1 January is unacceptable? Is she aware that glasshouse growers in Britain cannot retain their confidence, nor can they have a bankable assurance for next season, as long as the Government delay giving that firm undertaking and making such a statement?

We have made it clear that we shall take any legal action that can be taken. The period for adaptation aids has only recently been extended by the Commission. We are urgently considering the extension.