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Agriculture, Fisheries And Food

Volume 81: debated on Thursday 20 June 1985

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Milk Quotas (Tenant Farmers)


asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will list the steps he has taken to protect tenant farmers from the effects of the imposition of milk quotas.

Tenant farmers were given the same rights as owner-occupiers to apply to the quota tribunal for extra quota. Tenant farmers will also benefit, like other milk producers, from the increased flexibility which I negotiated for the management of quotas, and from the recently announced allocation of extra quota to small producers.

Does the Minister recognise that tenant farmers and small and family farmers have had to bear the major burden of the milk quota scheme? Does he think it right that the tenant farmer should have no rights over the milk quota, which his investment and hard work have helped to create, and that it should be completely at the disposal of the landlord? Does the Minister see the injustice of the position, and will he think of further steps to correct it?

Under the Community's regulations, quota is not owned by either the tenant or the landlord, but attaches to the land for the use of the occupier of that land. The hon. Gentleman will understand that while tenant farmers may have contributed to the build-up of production on the farm, they will have benefited from the resultant increase in income. I acknowledge that tenants have an interest in the quota, but so do landlords.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for saying that tenants, as occupiers, will now be able to take advantage of the outgoers scheme, rather than landlords who are not occupiers. It is good of him to clarify that point.

With respect to my hon. Friend, I did not say that. He may be interested to know that until recently the percentage of dairy farmers who were tenants who took advantage of the outgoers scheme was no less than 28 per cent.

The dairy quota scheme has been a botched job from the start. In view of the fact that it is particularly difficult for tenant dairy farmers to buy in transfer quota at the inflated prices which now apply, will the Minister offer special help to them by giving reasonable priority to them in the allocation of the latest tranche of outgoers quota?

We take all applicants for the outgoers scheme in the order in which they come. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the scheme has been reopened, and that is the basis on which we are at present working.

Dairy Industry


asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he is satisfied with the present state of the dairy industry; and if he will make a statement.

In spite of the effective implementation of quotas, there is still a substantial surplus of milk production, and significant shifts in consumer demand are taking place. I am confident that there is the enterprise and flexibility for this efficient and successful industry to adapt to changing circumstances.

Does the Minister recall the correspondence that we have had about leucomycin? It was the result of infected food being supplied by Dalgetys to more than 150 dairy farmers in Devon and Cornwall, which seriously affected their milk production. The company has honourably faced its responsibility to make compensation. The panels recognise that the production loss is genuine, yet the rules do not allow any extra quota to be given. Will the Minister tell the House precisely what he has done so far to correct that obvious injustice?

I am aware that several cases fell outside the rules—they were cases of hardship—and that they could not be dealt with by the tribunal and the panels. I am aware of those difficult cases, and I shall be meeting Lord Grantchester later this afternoon to discuss them.

Despite the many vicissitudes through which the dairy industry has passed in recent months, does my right hon. Friend believe that doorstep deliveries are safe for the time being?

How nice it is to see my hon. Friend in the Chamber. I hope that the doorstep delivery is safe for the time being, but the continuance of that excellent service depends upon the support of housewives. If housewives buy their milk in other places, the doorstep delivery system will be in jeopardy.

Is the Minister aware that last year milk production in England and Wales was 215 million litres below quota? Is he further aware that there is still a colossal surplus of milk production in the EC? Does he accept that last year he caused the maximum disruption of the industry in Britain, for the minimum benefit in Europe? May we now have a proper, long-term review of the dairy industry? That might be a useful chapter in a possible White Paper on agriculture.

The hon. Gentleman has bowled me a full toss here. I refer him to a recent press release from the Milk Marketing Board on the "Milkminder" dairy costing service, which demonstrated that, for the 1,931 herds surveyed in 1983–84 and 1984–85, margins over purchased feed increased by £53 a cow in the first year of quotas, from £511 to £564.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the effect of the payment of levy on an annual basis? Has he received representations from the farmers' unions of England or Wales on the result of the recent price fixing in Brussels?

I was able to get agreement that the payment of levies which might become due will be made on an annual basis. That has been welcomed by the NFUs, and it will be helpful to farmers who are changing the seasonal pattern of their production. I was especially pleased that a Welsh farming organisation warmly welcomed the livestock part of the price fixing settlement.

Without minimising the real hardship caused to some dairy farmers, does my right hon. Friend agree that the figures from the Milk Marketing Board survey show that there has been a real overall increase in profits for the dairy industry during the first year of quotas? Will he reject completely the hypocrisy of the junior Opposition spokesman on agriculture, the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson)?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. The Milk Marketing Board's survey referred to margins over purchased feed, not to profits. Of course, the two are related.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the consternation in the dairy industry about the Government's attitude towards delays in payment for butter taken into intervention? Although EC countries have reduced the minimum delay from 120 days to 90 days, Britain is sticking to 120 days. Does he accept that not only will that cost the Dairy Crest £1·25 million in extra interest payments, but, more damagingly, it implies to British farmers that the Government will not treat them on equal terms with other EC farmers?

Member states can use their discretion on those matters. I do not have the information on what other countries are doing. It is doubtful whether we should make intervention more attractive and increase the already heavy burden that it imposes on public funds or reduce the incentive for production to find the real market outlets.

Agricultural And Food Research Council


asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the level of his Department's funding of the Agriculture Research Council compared to previous years.

My Department's expenditure with the Agricultural and Food Research Council in the current year is likely to be very similar in cash terms to that in 1984–85.

Does the Minister envisage the research and development services coping with — whether the right hon. Gentleman hides it or not — something approaching a cut in real terms in the time that they have been given? Will that not injure the totality of their work?

The total expenditure on agriculture, fisheries and food from all sources is likely to amount to £204 million in 1983–84. The total spent on agricultural research and development amounts to £160 million. That is an enormous amount of money being spent on that important endeavour. I have no reason to believe that it is likely to be inadequate.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the grave anxiety of the horticultural sector of the industry about reputed reductions in research and development? Horticulture gets little general support from the Government and taxpayers' funds, so the support for research and development is of particular value.

I hear what my hon. Friend says. He will know that those matters are being considered by the Priorities Board. It would be a mistake to pre-empt what it might decide. Those concerned are experts in this area, and the AFRC is represented on the board. No doubt those people will note what my hon. Friend has said.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the slashing of funds for the research and advisory functions of his Ministry will have a serious effect on the industry as a whole? Unfortunately, through his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland following his example in Scotland, it has meant a cut of 41 per cent. Will the right hon. Gentleman take on board the point, which has already been made, that expenditure on those services is well worth while and that the loss from cutting them might be severe?

The right hon. Gentleman will recall that this question is about research and development, not necessarily about the advisory service. He will also recall that we are now having discussions with the industry with regard to both research and development and the advisory service, so that the industry as a whole will be able to make a larger contribution in the place of cuts in public expenditure that are necessarily having to take place.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Government are doing everything they can to mobilise private sector support to make up the shortfall in funding that will arise from the Government's reductions? Is not that the least that the Government could do in the present circumstances? Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that unless funding is maintained we shall lose research capabilities—as an example, I cite aspects of the work of the National Vegetable Research Station at Wellsbourne—which are not only of proven and continuing value to our economy, but, through our aid programme, would enable us at minimum cost to confer immeasurable benefits on some of the poorest people in the world?

My hon. Friend will remember the announcement that I made on 24 May, that consultations would be held with the industry, and that it would be invited to consider a system of sectoral contributions. Those consultations are now in progress. It is valuable that the Priorities Board is in being. It is looking at the whole realm of agricultural research. My hon. Friend may like to read the Select Committee's report of two years ago and the Joint Consultative Organisation's report on the same subject, which were critical of certain aspects of the structure and organisation of research and development.

Will the Minister tell us when the institutes concerned will know about the effect of these reviews on staff numbers and, in particular, where the cuts will fall? Not the least hardship is the uncertainty that they all feel by reason of these cuts.

Responsibility for the reseach councils falls upon my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. However, I appreciate the current uncertainties. Our aim is to provide clear guidance as soon as possible.

Agricultural Production


asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will estimate the effect that the recent price cuts proposed at Brussels on agricultural produce will have on agricultural production.

It is impossible to make precise estimates of what agricultural production will be in any year, as much will depend upon unpredictable factors, such as the weather. But if prices are reduced, the production of a commodity over a period will be lower than it would otherwise have been.

Does my right hon. Friend realise that the figures produced by his Department show that during the past 10 years farm gate prices have fallen by an average of 20 per cent., but that during the same period production in some sectors has risen by as much as 200 per cent.? Bearing that in mind, can he have any confidence that this price-cutting policy will reduce food production?

Those who are against nominal price cuts have always used the argument that if prices are cut production is increased. I reject that argument. There is a great difference between cutting prices in real terms and cutting prices in nominal terms. My hon. Friend should remember that so far in the history of agricultural support, either in this country before we joined the European Community or within the common agricultural policy, there has not been a period when a real attempt has been made to control production by reducing prices. My view is that in this sector the market will work, as it works in other sectors.

If the agreement results in a cut in prices, will the Minister think of my small farmer constituents who have already had their sugar beet and potato quotas cut and to whom CALs make all the difference between a profit and a loss? Will he tell the House what he thinks will happen to them?

During the past few years the larger farmers on the eastern side of the country have had a far better deal than have farmers on the western side of the country. That has caused me to say continually that the imbalance between grain and livestock needs further to be redressed.

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that in this changing scene for British agriculture there are some very real problems, particularly for small farmers? Will he also bear in mind that prices now for calves, heifers and store cattle are the highest they have ever been and that grass sales are running at £125 per acre? All is not, therefore, gloom and doom under this Government.

I am glad to hear that the farming industry in Devon has confidence in the Government's policies. That is the only lesson that one can derive from the most interesting figures that my hon. Friend has presented to the House.

:Farmers were delighted by the retention of the beef variable premium scheme, but they now find that the Commission is implementing that scheme in a quite different way from that which was outlined by my right hon. Friend in the House. For example, it is limiting the pay-out on certain weights of carcases.

Last week I had a meeting with the Commissioner and told him that this proposal was totally unacceptable.

Is it not astonishing that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food appears to be unaware that he is responsible for the direction of British agriculture? It is not good enough for the right hon. Gentleman to stand at the Dispatch Box and airily appear to diagnose the problem without beginning to perceive that he is responsible for providing some of the answers.

The hon. Gentleman must understand that, because this country is part of the Community and of the common agricultural policy, it is not always possible immediately to get exactly 100 per cent. of one's own way. That was certainly the case when the Labour party was in power. I remember seven or eight years ago the then Minister standing at the Dispatch Box wondering what on earth to do about the pig crisis.

On the proposed cereal price cuts by the Commission two days ago, will my right hon. Friend say what on earth is going on in this chaotic organisation? Do we, or do we not, have a veto? What will be the price?

I remind my hon. Friend that there is a later question on this matter on the Order Paper. I have read the reports of the Commission's intentions, although I have not yet received formal notification. Clearly, the Commission cannot simply overrule the Council of Ministers, but, in the absence of Council decisions, the Commission's desire to maintain an orderly market is understandable. I do not rule out the possibility of the Council reaching a satisfactory agreement on cereal prices before 1 August.

What effect will the proposed cereal price changes have on agricultural produce? Should not the answer be that there will be no diminution of cereal harvesting, production and surpluses in Europe during the coming season? Will the right hon. Gentleman pledge that none of the extra VAT devoted to own resources in the legislation introduced last Friday will be spent on agricultural produce?

The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that the position agreed with regard to the increase in own resources was that spending on CAP would increase at a slower rate than the rate at which resources were increasing in total.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this feeble attempt to cut surpluses is resented by those farmers who receive no price support of any type? Does he realise that early strawberry growers, especially around Cheddar, are suffering because dumped foreign fruit has been brought in at below the cost of production? What will my right hon. Friend do to help them? Will he support the British horticulture industry as vigorously as other countries protect their industries?

If my hon. Friend reads Hansard, he will know that on many occasions my hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have raised this matter in the Council of Ministers. Two years ago we were getting little support from other member states in resisting the importation of soft fruits of this type from eastern European countries. I am glad to say that many other countries which are facing similar difficulties are moving in behind us to get something done about these damaging imports.

Farming Industry (Young Entrants)


asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he is satisfied with the prospects for young people wishing to enter the farming industry.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

I am satisfied that opportunities continue to exist for keen and resourceful young people wishing to enter the farming industry as farmers or as agricultural workers. Although the industry is currently facing a period of readjustment, in the longer term the prospects for those engaged in farming are good as home food production will continue to make a vital contribution to the country's economy.

Is my hon. Friend aware that her confidence in the fact that there are adequate opportunities is not fully shared by young people in the fanning sector? Does she agree that, to sustain confidence among those people, it is essential that there are first-class career opportunities? It is important to ensure that those opportunities are visibly sustained and that the Government are seen to take that fact on board. Will my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Minister once again examine the European legislation to ascertain how it might be adapted to our needs to create confidence among young people who are thinking of entering the agriculture industry?

We have received a number of representations about the provisions in the new EC structures regulation relating to young farmers. We are studying these carefully and shall reach a decision in the context of the new capital grant arrangement. Legislation on those new arrangements will be presented to Parliament shortly.

I am sure the Minister will agree that we must retain our county council smallholdings if we are to help young people entering the farming community. What advice has she or the Government given to county councils which are now selling off their smallholdings?

We regard local authorities as being in the best position to judge how best to manage their estates. Unfortunately, smallholdings have not generally proved effective in providing that first rung of the ladder, largely because of the absence of further rungs and the difficulty in building up sufficient capital from a relatively small holding.

Why should young people be given more encouragement to enter farming than any other industry?

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that in the agriculture industry we are giving the possibility of apprenticeships and what I regard as opportunities—no more and no less.

Does the Minister agree that, no matter how we do it, we must encourage an increased number of young people to go in to, and stay in, the agriculture industry? Could this not be best effected by assisting in the creation of more small tenanted farms? Has not the time come to look again at tenancies and how to encourage their creation?

One of the principal objectives of our Agricultural Holdings Act, which will be familiar to the hon. Gentleman, was to encourage landlords to create more new tenancies, but this must be given a little more time. We hope to do this by removing one of the major disincentives to letting, which is the excessive security of tenure created by the family succession provisions in the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976, which was passed by a Labour Government.

Does my hon. Friend remember that recently we passed the Agricultural Holdings Act to try to put up a ladder to encourage people to take tenancies of farms? Therefore, how can it be sensible to cut away the lowest rung by allowing county councils to sell off smallholdings?

I can only reiterate to my hon. Friend that, although the use of those smallholdings as a rung has been much advertised, all the figures show that they have not proved to be effective.

Is the hon. Lady aware that the incentives to landlords, about which she has been speaking, have not achieved an increase in the number of farms to let? Following the consultations that she has just mentioned, will the Government actively support article 7 of the draft European structure directive, which is a measure which could provide a genuinely useful package to help young people set up in the farming industry?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman was listening when I said that, yes, we have had many representations on the matter, that we are looking at it in the context of the capital grant arrangements, and that legislation will go through Parliament. I hope that, as a landlord, the hon. Gentleman will set a good example by offering tenancies.

Pressure Stock Licensing


asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has received on the question of pressure stock licensing; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food(Mr. John MacGregor)

I have had representations for some easement of the pressure stock licensing rules from fishermen and vessel owners excluded from the pressure stocks. I have also received a number of representations for the tightening-up of the scheme. I have already announced a review of the arrangements for the pelagic fisheries in advance of the full review due next year.

Does the Minister accept that the decision, which he announced through a written answer on Monday of this week, whereby the three vessels from the Nethelands could gain their licences by means that are in total contravention of the rules—the Minister has confirmed that—is disgraceful? On top of that, they have been allowed respective catches of almost 3,500 tonnes per vessel. Will the Minister confirm that the review that he has announced will try to correct what is clearly a thoroughly shambolic, unfair and discriminatory state of affairs, which he has described as a regrettable misunderstanding and which, in any Minister's language, is fairly strong?

It is important to recognise that there have been sizeable changes since 1980 in the structure of the pelagic fleet and in the nature of the fishing opportunities available. Therefore, our review is timely. In particular, the number of freezer trawlers has dropped from 26 in 1980 to only one last year. Many of them came out of fishing without the benefit of decommissioning grants. It is doubtful whether the number was expected to drop so fast when the original decision was taken in 1980. It is doubtful, too, whether we should have such a low freezer trawler capacity. That is why we should have a review and why that issue should be considered within the review. The quota amounts for the three trawlers—which are not Netherlands-owned, but British-owned—are the same as purse-seiners would get.

Can my hon. Friend give an estimate of how long the review of pelagic licensing arrangements will take? Can he explain how the mistake of granting licences to what are, in effect, foreign vessels came about?

At this stage I cannot say how long the review will take. I must repeat that the trawlers are not now foreign vessels. I have been given assurances by the owner of two of them that it is intended increasingly to employ British crews. In regard to the error, it is a complicated matter. We are considering it at the moment, but we have made it clear that the licences that have been granted are provisional, pending the outcome of the review.

While these may not be foreign vessels, they have no historic right to the licences. Fishermen understand that mistakes can occur, and they respect the way in which the mistake was acknowledged. What they find intolerable is that the trawlers will be allowed to continue fishing. Will the Minister revoke the licences immediately?

No. On the last point. I have nothing to add to the written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Spence) on Monday. It is important for us all to reflect on whether there have been changes since 1980 and, therefore, whether it is desirable to make changes in our own arrangements. I am not prejudging that issue. Obviously there have been changes since 1980. Therefore, a review is now sensible.

Grain Storage


asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is the present tonnage of grain in storage in the United Kingdom.

There were 3·23 million tonnes of wheat and 0·95 million tonnes of barley in intervention stores in the United Kingdom on 15 June 1985. Comparable information is not available on stocks held on farms or in private stores.

I note the reply, but I am sure the Minister is aware of the problems caused by the storage of this vast amount of surplus grain and of the cost of storage. As we shall shortly have this year's harvest to add to the existing surplus, what is the thinking of the Government about the long-term production of grain in the United Kingdom? For example, will quotas be introduced?

It is important to recognise that the industry found sufficient storage for the record harvest of last year. The Intervention Board for Agricultural Produce has had a very encouraging response so far to the recent tenders for new storage for the early part of the new season. In regard to the general policy on cereals, there are a host of reasons why, if it can be achieved, the policy that we have been pursuing in the Community for price reduction on a longer-term basis for cereals is correct. We are considering all the alternatives. Nevertheless, it remains the case that severe price restraint on support prices for cereals must remain an important part of any policy for some time.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the reduction in price of 1·8 per cent. may well lead to extra production and that the only way to use the price mechanism to reduce production is to reduce prices much more substantially?

My hon. Friend will know that we argued, without in the end enough support, for full application of the guaranteed threshold this year, which would have led to a reduction of 5 per cent. I understand my hon. Friend's concern about the cost of dealing with the disposal of surpluses in the Community. He will know that a policy of price reduction in cereal support prices helps to bring down the cost of the regime.

What proportion of this grain is stored in Northern Ireland, and are the Government taking steps to increase that proportion?

I do not have the figures showing the proportion stored in Northern Ireland. I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman about the matter.

Food Labelling


asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he expects to conclude the consultation on voluntary nutritional labelling; and when he expects to receive the surveys carried out by the consumer organisations.

Comments from many interested parties on the draft guidelines for the voluntary nutrition labelling of food have been received and are being considered. The Consumers Association, the National Consumer Council and my Department expect to have the results of the consumer survey available shortly.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. How much emphasis will be placed on the results of the survey? If the survey shows the need for better nutritional labelling and for fat information, will she take note of that, and will it affect legislation?

I assure my hon. Friend that comments arising from the draft nutritional guidelines, together with the results of the consumer survey and points that have arisen in consultations with manufacturers and retailers, will be taken into account in producing revised guidelines.

One of the most important aspects of nutritional labelling is the sugar content of any food. As the Department does not propose to show that separately, will the Minister undertake that, if the survey provides evidence that such labelling would be valuable, the Department will change its mind?

The question of the labelling of fibre, sugar and salt content has particularly been brought to our attention. The labelling of those foods is allowed in the present draft, but we shall consider, in the light of comments, whether they need to be part of the basic list.

Agricultural Chemicals


asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he is satisfied with progress in the development of safer techniques for the application of agricultural chemicals.

It is our aim to ensure a continuous transition to a higher level of safety in pesticides application. My Department, together with the Agriculture and Food Research Council, is continuing to develop and evaluate various techniques designed to control spray composition and deposition and improve application safety and efficiency. These include rotary atomisation, electrostatic charging, metering devices, the use of air deflection and droplet sizing.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the massive increase in the use of agricultural chemicals in recent years has had the severest effect on wildlife? While I welcome all the research that she has announced, may I ask whether she is aware that we have a duty to see that this research is carried through to success and is applied rapidly?

My hon. Friend will be aware that the passage of the Food and Environment Protection Bill will be a major step forward in that it will provide powers to control the use of pesticides. That will be done through regulations, codes of practice and information provided with each pesticide. I am confident that we can develop a procedure for assessing the safety of alternative application systems.

Is the Minister aware that safer techniques are of no earthly use unless they are put into effect? Will she accept the need for appropriate training for farm workers and others in the industry? Will the new regulations on pesticides cover a proper training programme for the people concerned?

In Committee on the Bill we have reached a good agreement on training and certification. During the continued passage of the measure—we hope next week—those matters will become even more evident.

Food Labelling


asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what further consultations he plans and with whom before issuing regulations on the fat labelling of foods.

We shall consult widely on any proposals for legislation on food labelling, as required by section 118 of the Food Act 1984.

Bearing in mind the wide variety of fat blends used by the food industry, does my hon. Friend agree that the balance to be struck with these regulations is that of informing the consumer without imposing unnecessary burdens on the food industry?

Yes, of course, and we are, in relation to labelling, responding to the recommendations of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food.

Has the Minister seen the well-researched article in The Observer of 26 May, which suggests that the Government's proposals are totally inadequate in relation to food labelling and will not distinguish between the nutritional value of a Mars bar, with 67 per cent. sugar, and puffed wheat, with 1·7 per cent.? Surely, in addition to fat labelling, it is important to issue details of sugar content.

I have just said in answer to a question that in the nutritional labelling, which is to be voluntary, we shall look at whether fibre, sugar and salt content should be part of the basic list—that which we require if nutritional labelling is to be done at all.