Agriculture, Fisheries And Food
Rosemaund Experimental Husbandry Farm
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has any plans to pay an official visit to the Rosemaund experimental husbandry farm in the west midlands.
I have no plans at present to visit Rosemaund in the near future.
Is my hon. Friend happy with the advice being given to farmers by ADAS on conservation generally and on the management of broadleaved woodlands on farms in particular?
Advice on forestry generally is a matter for the Forestry Commission. However, ADAS does give wide-ranging advice on conservation matters, including the management of woodlands, as part of the farm enterprise.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has received about the 1985 agricultural price levels.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what further consideration has been given by the European Economic Community Council to the Commission's agricultural price proposals.
My Department has received representations about the Commission's price proposals from the farmers unions in the United Kingdom, representatives of the food manufacturing industry, food retailers and consumers. The Agriculture Council discussed the proposals at its meetings on 25 and 27 March and on 1 and 2 April and discussions are expected to resume at the next meeting of the Council starting on 22 April.
Is the Minister aware that there is a desperate need to start to tackle the problem of high sale prices and the surpluses that they create, which is why both sides of the House supported the stand that he took in our debate on this issue? Will he give the House a cast-iron assurance that in no circumstances will he agree to a price-cut of anything less than the 3·6 per cent. put forward by the Commission?
I agree that it is very important that the right signals are given about cereals right across the Community. We must bear in mind that when we arrive at this year's harvest we could find 15 million or 16 million tonnes of grain still hanging over from the previous harvest.
What attitude will the Minister adopt in the Council if, as is likely, his colleagues from the other Common Market countries alter the Commission's price proposals to increase the total cost outside the scope of the financial guideline laid down by the Heads of Government and the Finance Council?
The hon. Gentleman will remember the discussions that we held on the general principles on 18 March when we expressed our opinions. He will know that if it seems likely at any stage of the negotiations that the costs of the proposals will go above the agreed ceilings, there is provision for a Joint Council with Finance Ministers at a future date to thrash out the financial problems.
Following the representations that my right hon. Friend has received, will he assure the House that he is strongly urging the European Commission on the abolition of the co-responsibility levy and also fighting to the utmost for the retention of the beef variable premium?
My hon. Friend will recall that in the debate, in which he took part, I made it clear, in regard to the beef variable premium, that it was my intention to fight for the continuation of that measure, and there was broad agreement among hon. Members on that. He will also recall the proposal of the Commission to reduce the co-responsibility levy from 3 to 2 per cent. I have been greatly heartened by the discussions; in particular, by hearing the French representative say for the first time that he believed that we should be thinking in terms of phasing out the co-responsibility levy for milk—a sentiment which I strongly support.
In view of the protracted negotiations that are taking place in Brussels on the co-responsibility levy, will the right hon. Gentleman consider introducing an interim measure, to take effect from 1 April, to reduce the levy by 1·5 per cent.? That would at least provide some aid for the hard-pressed dairy farmers, who have suffered much in the last 12 months, and such a step would riot in any way affect the price of milk to the consumer.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that because we were not able to reach agreement in the discussions the 1984–85 marketing year was extended to 28 April. Within that arrangement we already have a further 1 per cent. reduction in the milk quota. The Commission made it clear that there would be nothing to stop the backdating of the reduction of 1 per cent. in the co-responsibility levy to 1 April.
In considering the representations. will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that agricultural price levels have been declining and that farmers' real incomes have been maintained only by increasing output? Is he aware that if restraints on output are imposed many thousands of farmers will face a great dilemma, unless there is a reversal of policy at home?
I am naturally concerned about the impact of these measures on farm incomes. My hon. Friend will agree, however, bearing in mind the massive over-production and huge surpluses which overlay the Community market, that it is important to put our house in order now. Otherwise, it will be infintely more difficult to do so at a later stage.
What proposals does the Minister have with respect to livestock producers' incomes in the light of the representations that he has received?
The hon. Gentleman was present when we debated that issue on 18 March. He will remember that I said—and I repeated it today—that it was important to maintain the beef variable premium scheme. He will also recall that part of the Commission's proposals was for a move to the second stage of the introduction of the carcase classification grid for beef. I made some remarks in the debate about sheepmeat and the importance of making sure that any alterations to the sheepmeat variable premium were compensated through the annual ewe premium, or the system would be discriminatory against the United Kingdom.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the cereals sector has not experienced the same income reductions as have been suffered by the livestock sector? Does he further agree that a cut in the price of cereals would help the livestock sector, as well as benefiting the consumer and helping to curb surpluses? What minimum cut in grain prices is he insisting on during the current negotiations?
My hon. Friend will recall that in the debate on 18 March I made it clear that I did not believe that the proposed 3·6 per cent. cut in cereal prices made by the Commission was adequate and that the full cut of 5 per cent., stemming from the guarantee threshold, should be applied. I have therefore been telling the Council of Ministers that, for the reasons to which my hon. Friend rightly draws attention, a 5 per cent. cut would be the correct move to make.
When the Minister has stripped all the jargonese from his remarks, will he explain whether the Government, in accordance with their philosophy, believe that market forces will apply to farms and that uneconomic farms will close? Alternatively, does he believe in continually subsidising farms, as is happening this year to the tune of about £20,000 per farm?
I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman was present in the Chamber when we debated these matters on 18 March.
I am glad to hear that the hon. Gentleman was in his place. We do not usually forget his presence.In France, for example, there is expected to be a major reduction in the number of uneconomic dairy farms. That demonstrates that market forces are operating much more effectively within the CAP and that the level of support is being reduced. The hon. Gentleman will remember that at the Stuttgart summit there was general agreement in the Community that we could not continue to subsidise enormous surpluses of food.
Will the right hon. Gentleman take into account the fact that, even if we achieve a full 5 per cent. cut in cereal prices, there is still a danger that the rake's progress of increased cereal production will continue?
No one can tell, but the hon. Gentleman must remember that last year there was what amounted to a reduction in cereal prices. If we were to have another reduction, many of those who are growing what amount to surplus cereals on land which traditionally has not been used for that purpose will have to consider whether it is wise to continue to produce cereals.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what new methods of disposal of surplus European Economic Community grain have recently been considered: and if he will make a statement.
There is currently some discussion about finding new outlets for Community cereals, and the issue has been raised in this year's price fixing discussions. We would look positively at proposals into the development of any such outlets if they seemed likely to be economically viable. It remains to be seen whether this will be the case.
Is the Minister aware that certain elements in the EEC have made the appalling proposal that surplus food should be converted into plastic material? Surely that is an appalling proposition at a time when millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa are in need. Will the Minister give an undertaking that the British Government will not support the proposal and will seek positive ways in which the surplus can be used to feed people, which is the purpose for which it was grown originally?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are spending considerable sums in disposing of quite a large part of the cereal surplus as emergency food aid to the African drought countries. We intend to deliver 1·2 million tonnes from last year's harvest. However, there is still a surplus, and that is why other suggestions are being made. I have not heard the suggestion to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but there is no sense in spending vast sums to find alternative outlets. We must ensure that any such outlets are economically viable.
As opposed to what has been allocated by the EEC, how much of the surplus grain has been delivered to Ethiopia and the Sudan?
I do not have the exact figures immediately to hand. If the hon. Gentleman tables a question seeking that information, I shall answer it.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what are the estimated savings by his Department for 1984–85 as a result of privatisation schemes.
No functions of my Department were privatised during 1984–85. However, new savings as a result of further contracting out of services are estimated at over £200,000 in a full year.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that small firms are given sufficient opportunities to tender for these services?
Yes. My hon. Friend may like to know that tenders are open to all-comers and that contracts have been placed with firms for cleaning, security guarding, press cutting, laundry, maintenance and a number of other services, including data preparation and graphic production.
As there has been speculation about privatisation in other areas, will the Minister acknowledge that the agri-chemical and fertiliser industries would have a vested interest in becoming involved in any privatised advisory or research services and that, with the best will in the world, they would be unlikely to give advice which would reduce the sales of their own products? Therefore, does he accept the overwhelming environmental case in the public interest for retaining independent advisory and research services under the auspices of his Department?
I have no plans for the privatisation of the functions of ADAS. I have accepted in principle that it is appropriate for those who benefit from the services of ADAS to contribute to the costs, and I am pursuing the practical implications of that. The hon. Gentleman makes a mistake if he thinks that farmers are gullible. They always look to see where the advice comes from before deciding what assessment to make of it.
asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what consideration he is giving to the interests of consumers and taxpayers in the farm price review negotiations; and if he will make a statement.
I have regard to all United Kingdom interests, including those of consumers and taxpayers, in the negotiations on CAP prices.
Is not the best way to dispose of Common Market and our own surpluses to lower their prices and make it possible for people to purchase them? Furthermore, with the accession of Spain and Portugal to the Common Market, will the right hon. Gentleman take steps to protect our taxpayers' interests, because enormous sums of money will be needed to bring the Spanish and Portuguese agriculture and fishing industries into line wih EC regulations? Will he make sure that we do not pay more than our fair whack?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, the accession of Spain and Portugal is rather wider than his question. The Government have consistently pressed for a more realistic pricing policy under the CAP. The right hon. Gentleman will remember that CAP prices were reduced in 1984 for the first time and that within the past six years consumers have had an infinitely better deal than they had under the Labour Government, when, in five years, food prices rose by 117 per cent.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will list the alternative means of restricting cereal production which are under consideration in his Department.
Decisions in that area are matters for the Community, but I accept the need to bring the cereals sector into a better balance. Restricting production directly could be one way of doing that. Others include developing new outlets, finding new ways of financing existing policies, or encouraging the greater operation of market forces through a restrictive price policy or by reducing the impact and coverage of support measures. I remain convinced that a sustained policy of price restraint is the best way of improving the balance of the cereals market.
Earlier it was said that there was likely to be a 16 million tonne carry-over of cereal surpluses into next year. Does the Minister accept that a marginal price cut, be it 3·6 or 5 per cent., will lead to pressure to increase production? Does he further accept that the draconian price cuts necessary to have the effect of suppressing production would have a devastating effect on smaller producers? Will he now take our advice and consult about contingency plans for cereal quotas, or has he learnt nothing from the shambles of the hastily introduced milk quotas?
The hon. Gentleman underestimates the effect that a sustained policy of price restraint could have. We have obviously been engaged in contingency planning. Our analysis of the alternatives and awareness of the difficulties and disadvantages involved in them leads us to the view that price restraint is by far the best answer, if it can be achieved.
Will my hon. Friend ensure that those contingency plans are ready to be implemented quickly, because our experience over milk quotas tends to suggest that when the Council of Ministers makes a final decision we shall not want to be caught on the hop again?
It is important to recognise that in the current price-fixing negotiations the proposal on the table is for price restraint. That is what we are discussing. The position is rather different from that of milk last year. Therefore, it is important to try to obtain a realistic answer along those lines in the negotiations.
Common Agricultural Policy
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether Her Majesty's Government are prepared to co-operate with the European Economic Community Commission to produce a rationalisation of the common agricultural policy.
I am willing to co-operate with all concerned to ensure that the process of putting the CAP on to a more rational basis is continued.
Does the Minister accept that if the rationalisation plans inevitably lead to reduced financial expenditure, especially in rural upland areas, the Government must have contingency plans to ensure that we do not return to the bad old days in the early 1960s of rural depopulation and unemployment?
Certainly the Community is extremely worried about those matters. I have no doubt that within the areas which the Commission has identified such matters will be of concern. In particular, one of the groups proposed by the Commission is to study agriculture in society—that is, the position of agriculture in the rural economy.
Regarding rationalisation, does my right hon. Friend appreciate that those of his hon. Friends who heard both Lord Peart and the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) separately introduce expansionist White Papers when they were Ministers of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are looking to him soon to produce a general strategy document for agriculture in the light of the new restrictionist policy?
At present, when so many uncertainties and matters are in the process of coming to fruition, it would not be appropriate to produce a White Paper of that sort. However, I do not rule that out. I have an open mind about it for the future.
What induced the Minister to stand on its head the expansionist policy of his predecessor?
The answer is simple. In June 1983, within a few weeks of the general election, the European Council meeting in Stuttgart at last decided that the CAP should be brought back to reality and rationality. As a result of those sensible decisions, which should have been taken years earlier—if British advice had been followed they would have been taken years earlier—we have been able to return the CAP to a degree of realism.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the British hops industry, which was strong for 60 years until two years ago, is currently in a state of great anxiety? Will he take steps to ensure that there is a greater degree of rationalisation throughout the European Community regarding hops? Will he pay a further visit to hop growers, as opposed to the Hops Marketing Board, this year?
My hon. Friend may recall that last September, besides visiting the headquarters of the Hops Marketing Board, I visited hops farms and saw the harvesting and processing of hops. I am aware of the current position, which gives rise to many difficulties. As my hon. Friend knows, we have a problem of over-supply at present. I shall most certainly keep my eye on the matter.
Livestock Farming (Financial Resources)
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what shift in financial resources he has been able to make from cereals to livestock for the year 1985–86.
Discussions are currently taking place on the Commission's proposals for the 1985–86 price fixing, which would reduce the CAP support price for cereals, leave unchanged the price of beef and pigmeat and make modest increases in the price support for milk and for sheepmeat from January 1986.As my hon. Friend knows, we are committed to trying to achieve a better balance of support between the arable and livestock sectors, and we have indicated that we feel the Commission's proposals do not go far enough in reducing the price support for cereals.
Does my hon. Friend agree that much more needs to be done if lifestock farmers are to receive the same financial opportunities as cereal farmers? Can we expect an accelerating trend towards livestock farming in the coming year?
My hon. Friend will know that in view of the market position, for example, in beef, the Community beef management committee recently agreed to augment the existing programme of hindquarter intervention with a short period of private storage aids. I hope that that will help. I believe that our endeavours to retain the beef premium scheme—at present it costs £2 million to £3 million a week to help producers—will undoubtedly help. We are trying to restore the balance in all those directions. However, I also believe that the recent reduction in the breeding herd will help to restore the balance and will help livestock producers in the long run.
European Community (Portugal)
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has received from the National Farmers Union regarding the effect of Portugal's accession to the European Economic Community on British agriculture; and if he will make a statement.
I am not aware of any aspect of the terms for Portugese accession which is of substantial concern to the National Farmers Union.
What of the problems of the soft fruit farmers of the south of England?
The arrangements that we have made regarding the cost of Portuguese accession to the Community budget, in view of the major uncertainties about developments between now and the end of the 10-year transitional period, should mean that the National Farmers Union need not have immediate and serious concern on this matter.
Is my right hon. Friend not worried about the potential effect on the balance of voting in the Council of Ministers of the EC when Portugal and Spain come in and add their weight to the votes of Greece, Italy and France to swing the emphasis of CAP money to southern products, to the detriment of our farming interests?
My hon. Friend should consider the terms of the accession agreement, which awaits ratification and signature. With the transitional period that has been negotiated, I believe that British growers need not have serious worries.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one reason for supporting agriculture in the United Kingdom, especially in mountain areas, is the fact that, for strategic reasons, we have learnt that we must keep livestock there, and that this could be affected substantially by the enlargement of the Community?
Regardless of the fact that it is proposed that Spain and Portugal should join the Community, it is unlikely that our support for the upland areas will be eroded.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he expects producers to be told of their positions as far as final milk production is concerned for the year 1985–86.
The Milk Marketing Board for England and Wales will be notifying producers of their 1985–86 quotas within the next few weeks.
Obviously, that is an improvement on last year. Can the Minister say that the Government have finally decided not to pay farmers the full quota allocated to them through the claims made at the tribunals? Is that decision final, or will the Government rethink their position and inform the farmers at a later date that their quotas have been increased by extending the outgoers scheme so that the extra quota allocated can be paid in full?
I think that the hon. Gentleman has in mind farmers with development claims who are looking for secondary quota from the tribunals. As he knows, that comes out of the reserve that we held back from primary quotas. Since the tribunals awarded the amount that they did, it is necessary this year to cut the awards by about 35 per cent. We do not yet know what the final position will be for next year, but I do not expect it to be much different. As to the outgoers scheme, the hon. Gentleman will know that, as milk producers become accustomed to quotas, they are more anxious to stay in milk production. Therefore, there is still some capacity left in the outgoers scheme.
Does the Minister realise that the rough justice handed out in some cases by the quota tribunals, on their admission, as a result of the rules which they have had to operate, has meant much hardship for many farmers? Will he now confirm publicly what I understand he said privately: that he will sift through those cases to ensure that something can be done to assist such producers?
The tribunal process is a judicial one, and we made it clear from the outset that it would not be possible for us to intervene or interfere in the decisions about individual producers. That remains the case, but we knew from the outset that some difficult cases could not be covered by the regulations. We have made it clear that we are reviewing those cases, but without commitment, because it depends on having additional quota available to give to those whom we think deserve it.
Is my hon. Friend aware that a great many farmers believe that those countries in the EC which have no proper milk register are unable to operate a proper quota system? Will he tell the House which countries of the EEC have a proper overall milk register for quota system milk?
We made it very clear in the Council from the outset that the new system that has been introduced in the Community must be applied fairly and equally by all member states. We continue to insist on that, and that is why we took the decision that we did earlier about the payment of super levy. On the particular question my hon. Friend asked,I am endeavouring to get precise information on registers, but there is evidence that the vast majority of member states are now applying the quota system. It is quite significant that more than 20,000 dairy producers in France, for example, have come out of dairying in the past year.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to accept the specific recommendation m the report of the Select Committee on Agriculture that Government compensation should be given to farm workers who lose their jobs as a consequence of these quota schemes? Can he give us any reason why this second search which is now taking place for outgoers to release quota for needy cases should be any more successful than the first one?
We shall obviously give our considered reply to the Select Committee's report, but, as we have made clear frequently in the House, the outgoers scheme is not a redundancy payments scheme and was never designed to be so. There are statutory redundancy payment arrangements, as the hon. Gentleman knows. On the hon. Gentleman's second point, it is important to recognise that we set ourselves, as the objective of the outgoers scheme, the yielding of enough quota to enable us to help all cases of exceptional hardship and all small milk producers to get back to 1983 production levels. I believe that the rate of progress we are making brings us very close to achieving that
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he is satisfied with the prospects for the beef sector of the agriculture industry.
There is at present a surplus of beef in the Community, partly due to the increased cow cullings following the introduction of milk quotas, and producers' returns are accordingly relatively low in relation to the Community's guide prices. In view of the market situation, the Community beef management committee recently agreed to augment the existing programme of hindquarter intervention with a short period of private storage aids. The need is to achieve a better balance between supply and demand in the Community.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that the longer-term beef production cycle means that there has also to be commensurate longer-term confidence in the United Kingdom beef producing sector? Is he aware that his and his right hon. Friend's robust defence of the scheme is welcome, in that it does lead and will lead to the consumption of beef? Can he seek to sustain it on a longer-term basis instead of a year-by-year negotiation basis?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the scheme, and if we had been able to achieve that we would obviously have gone for it. Unfortunately, we were not responsible for the arrangement, which meant that it was on a one-yearly basis. My hon. Friend is right in the point that he makes about consumption. We estimate that if we had not had the beef variable premium scheme last year beef consumption would have been 8 per cent. or more lower than was the case. That would have led to considerable increases in intervention, which, of course, also creates considerable problems of physical storage.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, against the background of the figures which he has just given, the view of the Commission is so irrational as to border on the lunatic? Did he by any chance hear the representative of the Commission on the farming programme this morning declaring in no uncertain terms that it was going to see the end of the variable beef premium? Is that not absolute nonsense?
We have made it very clear, as my hon. Friend knows, that we shall use every endeavour to retain that scheme this year. One of the arguments is that we estimate that without the premium 75,000 to 80,000 tonnes of beef would have had to go into intervention last year to keep producer prices at roughly the same levels. It seems to me that, with the problems of physical storage, it is very much better to have the beef going on to consumers' plates than into intervention.
Does my hon. Friend accept that small, family-run farms are the backbone of the livestock industry, including the beef industry, and that in recent years the agricultural price reviews have tilted matters in favour of the large producer? This year, is it not time that the balance was tilted in favour of the small, family-run farm?
I think that it is clear from the debate that we had on the price review proposals, and from the Government's response, that we agree that it is important to get a better balance between cereals and livestock. That is our endeavour in negotiations.
Is the Minister aware that we have reached Question 17, and that every Tory Member who has asked a question has called for more Government intervention, more subsidies of one kind or another—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I did not.
I have not finished yet. We have caught Tory Members at it. Every one of them wants more subsidies. Why does the Minister not—
Order. We are talking about beef. Perhaps the Minister will try to reply to the question as far as it has gone.
Where is the beef? Will the—
Order. I have called the Minister to answer as far as the hon. Gentleman has gone.
Will the Minister convey to his colleagues that if the Cabinet is prepared to intervene in the farming industry on a massive scale, to appease all these Tory Members—
Order. I have reminded the hon. Gentleman that the question is about beef. So far he has not referred to beef. Perhaps the Minister will now reply.
Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman has not been listening, either to what my hon. Friends have been asking or to what Ministers have been saying in reply.
They have been calling for more money.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman just does not understand.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the use of funds under the common agricultural policy for conservation projects.
As I told the House on 13 March, the Commission has agreed to bring forward during 1985 proposals for a Community-funded scheme based on the new provision for grants to environmentally sensitive areas. This represents a very successful outcome to the initiative which I put forward last year. FEOGA funding is already available for conservation work undertaken as part of an agricultural improvement.
I welcome the personal initiative of my right hon. Friend in this matter. What is the value of the funds, and what proportion of the total do they represent? For the benefit of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) I assure him that I am talking about the switching of funds and not about the increasing of funds.
I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but it is not possible to isolate a figure to show how much FEOGA spends on the conservation element of agricultural improvements. It is too early to assess the cost of our new initiative. We shall be seeking primary legislation as soon as possible.
Now that the Government have effectively banned the use of the pesticide dieldrin, why do they not use some of the European money for conservation purposes to ensure that that dieldrin that still remains in the supply chain within the United Kingdom is not used? Why do they not purchase it, take it off the market and protect the environment in so doing?
That is rather wide of the question, but the hon. Gentleman will well know—I know that he is a member of the Standing Committee that is dealing with these matters—that the Government are taking positive steps to reduce any risks from the use of pesticides.
Can the Minister give us an assurance that there will be no reduction in United Kingdom funded aid for conservation when we get the money from the Community, so that we avoid the dreaded additionality problem?
The hon. Gentleman should recall that the initiative agreed during March by the Council of Ministers is, at this stage, a nationally funded scheme. We hope that, at a later stage, we can persuade the Community to embrace the scheme as one funded by Community money. We have in progress an investigation of that possibility.
Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that it is his policy, wherever possible, to conserve land for agricultural use? In view of the arguments that we hear in the House from time to time about north versus south, does he agree that it would be helpful if he and his ministerial colleagues would take on board the point that so long as we allow farming land to be eaten up for development in areas such as Dorset, we are doing everything that we should not be doing if we wish to encourage growth in the less-favoured parts of the country?
My hon. Friend will know that a great deal of the effort of my Ministry goes in giving advice about the quality of the land that is concerned in development. He will know that over the years the Government have had a policy of trying to prevent the very best land being taken by development.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is the lates position regarding the Common Market price fixing negotiations; and whether he will make a statement.
I refer my hon. Friend to the reply I gave to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) and the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Deakins) earlier today.
Now that we have a regime of milk quotas, has not the milk co-responsibility levy lost all meaning? Surely my right hon. Friend ought to start negotiations in the Common Market to try to get rid of it?
I agree very much with what my hon. Friend says. He will know that the Commission has proposed to adjust from 3 to 2 per cent. the milk co-responsibility levy. I have said consistently that if one is to try to help dairy farmers I would much rather it were done through reducing the co-responsibiliy levy than by increasing the price.
asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 18 April.
This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House I shall be having further meetings later today. This evening I hope to attend a banquet given by President Banda.
In thanking my right hon. Friend for that reply, may I ask her if she has yet had time to study the people in work figures published yesterday, which show that there were 340,000 more people in work last year? Will she also confirm that, at 65 per cent., the proportion of people in work in this country is among the highest in the major industrial nations and well above the European average?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the subject of the increasing number of people who found jobs in 1984. If one takes the period since March 1983, one sees that some 613,000 more jobs have been created. Had we said in March 1983 that it was our policy to create 600,000 more jobs by March 1985 we would not have been believed. In fact, they have been created. As my hon. Friend has said, the proportion of the population of working age in work is higher in this country than in West Germany, France or Italy, and equal to that in the United States.
Does the Prime Minister know that while she was away 39 shire counties were told that they were to receive less rate support grant than they had been promised? Does she know that the reduction in that rate support grant is the direct result of the Greater London council levying a lower rate than the Government anticipated? How does she justify penalising Kent, Lancashire and Essex because the GLC has not raised its rate as much as the Government anticipated?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, it is customary to give an expected rate support grant and later to correct it. In this case it was corrected because the GLC decided to agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. In fact, in spite of all its posturings it set a rate below the limit that he had specified.
That may be customary under the new system, but it is clearly absurd. I ask the Prime Minister again to explain why Lancashire should be penalised because the GLC set a lower rate than the Government anticipated. Does it not demonstrate that the present system of rate support grant is preposterous and should be abolished, and that the Secretary of State for the Environment should go with it?
No, Sir. The GLC has bent towards my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the system used in this respect, the corrective system, was also used previously.
As always, the Prime Minister has scored high marks for irrelevant stridency. But I ask again how she justifies Lancashire being penalised because the GLC has raised a lower rate than she anticipated.
Because that is the system that has applied not only under this Government but under previous Governments as well. There is —[Interruption.] It does no earthly good to get excited and hysterical about it. That is the fact. The right hon. Gentleman may not like it, but it is a fact.
Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to try to understand the shadow Cabinet's shambles of a policy on mortgage relief? Can she confirm that mortgage relief is safe under the Conservatives?
I note that it is now Labour policy to abolish tax relief on mortgages. It is Conservative policy to keep tax relief on mortgages, and will continue to be.
Has the Prime Minister seen the forecast, given by her former adviser, Sir John Hoskyns, of 10,000 job losses as a result of the national insurance changes in the Budget? Will she consider a reduction in the overall rate of the employers' contribution to offset the welcome effect of the restructuring at the lower end of national insurance?
No, Sir. The restructuring of employers' national insurance contributions, taken across the board, was slightly favourable towards employers. As the right hon. Gentleman will recall, if he looks at the figures in the Red Book, the restructuring was slightly favourable overall towards employers because they received more relief at the lower end than imposition at the higher end. Of course, it will vary from employer to employer.
asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 18 April.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.
Is the Prime Minister aware that today's statement that the Government are to get their act together in the inner city areas will be met with utter disbelief by those who live in them? Is she unaware of what her policies have meant for the inner cities? There is massive unemployment, inadequate housing and the people there have had to mount a continuous campaign to try to keep their hospitals and local social services. If she is unaware of the result of her policies, why does she not go to those inner city areas and meet not the local Tory party officials but those who live there? Why does she not do that? No amount of dressing up Tory policies will solve our problems unless the money is provided to do that.
A statement has been put out and task forces are to be set up in certain specific city areas. No matter what the hon. Gentleman says about hospitals and the Health Service, it remains a fact that after inflation has been taken into account 20 per cent. more has been spent on the NHS under this Government——
That is a fact. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to challenge it, perhaps he should table a question. He will find that the answer to it is exactly the same as mine today.
Come to my constituency and see.
This Government have a far better record on the Health Service than the Labour Government ever had, and a far better record on building hospitals and on providing doctors and nurses than the Labour Government had. That is true, despite the hon. Gentleman's shouting and hysteria, which we have come to expect from him.
My right hon. Friend will no doubt be aware that the investigations into the social security system are viewed with considerable interest and that their results are also awaited with some interest. Will she give an undertaking that, when the results are considered, she and the Government will bear in mind the interaction between the social security and taxation systems, and that any reforms will be wide enough to consider including a basic income guarantee scheme, or a negative income tax scheme, or a variation thereof?
Order. Questions are becoming far too long.
As my hon. Friend is aware, the results of the social security reviews are expected to be out within about two months. I think that it is better to wait until they come out before we make further comment. With regard to my hon. Friend's specific question about the interaction between social security and taxation, it was with that in mind that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer reduced the employees' national insurance contributions at the lower end of the income scale.
Now that the Prime Minister has returned from places where democracy and working people are not of much account, will she turn her attention to visiting places in this country —for instance, the Llandarcy refinery where 750 people who are shareholders of British Petroleum have been told that they are to lose their jobs? Will she, as the trustee of the nation's shareholding in BP, tell BP that this sacking must not take place, especially as it has been suggested that it would break European Community rules?
As the hon. Gentleman is very much aware, there is a surplus of refinery capacity over the world as a whole, as well as in this country. Nothing that either of us says can avoid that fact. I am afraid, therefore, that it is likely that corrective action will have to be taken.
asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 18 April.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.
Will the Prime Minister accept that the reason her support is crumbling is not least because everybody, apparently—except the Cabinet—sees the country crumbling all around her? The setting up this morning of city action teams to co-ordinate con tricks, without one penny of extra money going to the inner city areas, conceals a real cut in money for inner city areas of £150 million in the next three years and displays nothing but a complacent and callous attitude.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that when the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced his Budget he mentioned that public expenditure was increasing, unfortunately, despite everything that we have done. If the hon. Gentleman wants more money to be spent on the particular project he specified, can he say from whom he would take it away?
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the abolition of domestic rates would be one of the most popular steps that this Government could take and that her proposals to this effect are eagerly awaited in South Suffolk and by ratepayers all over the country?
It will be some time before the detailed results of rating reform come out. When they do, they will be published for consultation and discussion in the House. I hope that they will be out in time for legislation before the next general election.
Will the Prime Minister find time today to consider whether she is serious about imprisoning, surcharging or making bankrupt local councillors whose only crime is that they carried out their mandate and the wishes of the local electorate?
Local councillors are subject to the law of the land, as is everybody else, and I hope that they will duly carry it out.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to use both blades of the scissors to cut unemployment? Is not any suggestion that a return to an all-party, simplistic, Keynesian solution would cut unemployment just as fraudulent as any suggestion that one might just leave it all to the market place?
There is no simplistic solution to unemployment. If there were, it would not be found all over Europe. The solution lies in the creation of genuine jobs. I repeat that 613,000 more jobs have come into existence since March 1983, that the United Kingdom is the only major European country in which employment is currently increasing and that the proportion of the population of working age in work is higher in the United Kingdom than it is in West Germany, France and Italy.
asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 18 April.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago and I thank him for giving me notice of the supplementary question that he wishes to ask.
Is the Prime Minister aware of the great sense of outrage in the north-west of England at the decision of Scottish and Newcastle Breweries to launch a bid for Matthew Brown pubs and breweries in the north-west of England? Is she aware that Scottish and Newcastle has repeatedly refused to give undertakings about the future of jobs in the breweries in Blackburn, Carlisle and Workington or about the future of the low barrelage pubs? Will the Prime Minister now intervene personally and ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to put the matter to the Monopolies and Merger Commission, because we object to the proposed merger, and it is for the Secretary of State to use his powers to obstruct it?
That was indeed the subject of which I was given notice, although the terms in which the question was asked were a little different. As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is not a matter for Cabinet decision. It is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—in the light of the advice of the Director General of Fair Trading, who I understand the hon. Gentleman has met—to decide whether the proposed merger or takeover should be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. My right hon. Friend will take into account all representations, including those of the hon. Gentleman, and the decision will be made as soon as practicable.