asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he expects a decision from the European Court on the dispute over the importation of fresh liquid milk into the United Kingdom from the continent.
If the Commission application to the court goes ahead in accordance with its recent announcement, I would expect a decision in about a year.
Will my hon. Friend continue his heroic efforts, by every legal means open to him, to prevent this importation? Will he bear in mind, however, that the United Kingdom stands to gain more than any other member of the Community from the strict application of the rule of law within the Community? Will he remember that the doorstep delivery of milk has an importance going well beyond the dairy industry? Will he, therefore, consult his Government colleagues to ensure that our system of doorstep delivery continues, even if we eventually get imports of liquid milk?
The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question is that we have told the Commission that, in our view, the best course is to seek a Community-wide solution via a directive on heat-treated milk. In the absence of such a directive, we consider that our public health controls are necessary, and we shall, therefore, be defending the case.I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we are among the member states which are persistently arguing that the Community rules and regulations must be observed by all member states. Therefore, we must do the same ourselves if we are to succeed with that argument. The best way in which doorstep delivery can be maintained is by keeping the excellent service and by our dairy industry remaining highly competitive. The House will recall that we had a considerable debate about imports of UHT and sterilised milk, when many fears were expressed about doorstep deliveries being undermined. That has proved not to be the case. Because of the competitiveness of our industry, there have been very few imports of that kind.
As the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has repeatedly informed me in recent months that there is a surplus of milk in the United Kingdom, why should there be any question of importing fresh milk into this country? I urge the Minister to bear in mind the danger, to which reference has been made, to the distribution of milk to the doorstep and the consequent danger to employees in the industry. In other words, is he aware that if fresh milk is allowed to be imported our already massive unemployment will be made that much higher?
Our concern about imports of this sort must, of course, be in relation to public health controls. However, if there is a Community-wide directive, as for all other products in the Common Market, there is free trade, provided that the public health controls are met. I repeat that the greatest strength of our dairy industry is its competitiveness, and the greatest hope for the doorstep delivery of milk is that that is what the consumer will continue to want. So far, all the fears about imports of other forms of milk have proved to be unjustified.
Is the Minister aware that, whatever the European Court may say, there will always be legitimate doubts about the health and hygiene standards of milk that may have been transported over long distances from warmer climates? May we have a categorical assurance that the Government will take all necessary steps to protect the health of our consumers, doorstep deliveries of milk and the interests of British dairy producers?
I have made it clear that we think that our controls are justified in the absence of a Community regime; and we shall do all that we can to persuade the court, if it comes to a court case.