asked the Secretary of State for Scotland when he last met the president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland; and what subjects were discussed.
My right hon. and learned Friend and I attended the union's annual dinner on 12 March, when a wide range of agricultural topics were discussed. I addressed the annual general meeting the following day.
I thank the Minister for meeting a delegation of my hon. Friends and myself this morning to discuss the beef crisis in Scotland. Will he assure us again that he appreciates the seriousness of the crisis in the beef industry? We are looking for an early announcement of any increase that he could make in headage payments and of a devaluation of the green pound. I appreciate that these important matters will be discussed at the Council of Ministers' meeting at the end of the month, but, given the importance of this to the Scottish agriculture industry, will he confirm that either he or his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State will attend that meeting?
At the moment there are no plans for my right hon. and learned Friend or me to attend the meeting at the end of the month, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman, as I did this morning, that the Government are well aware of the strong feelings in the industry on beef in particular. I am well aware of the importance of beef to the Scottish farming industry. The CAP price fixing negotiations and proposals to reform the agri-monetary system are a major element of the Commission's proposals, and we shall try to ensure that an even-handed balance is achieved between our producers and producers in other member states.
As a matter of Government policy, will my hon. Friend seek the fulfilment of the reasonable, restrained and sensible suggestions that the president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, Ian Grant, made in his annual speech? His suggestions were reasoned and sensible. Will the Government give them their blessing?
I am happy to echo my hon. and learned Friend's tribute to Ian Grant, the president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland. We have had many discussions, and I am well aware of the view of the industry as seen from NFU headquarters and by farmers. The current Commission package is a tough one. We must take some difficult decisions against a background of soaring surpluses in many of the major commodities. I can assure my hon. and learned Friend that I and my colleagues from other agricultural departments will be ensuring at the Council of Ministers' meeting and other meetings in Brussels that we safeguard the position of agriculture in this country.
When the Minister next meets the president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, will he ask him, if he did not ask him last time, what his views are on the proposals of the British Commissioner, Lord Cockfield — aided and buttressed by that deplorable organisation, the EEC—on the introduction of VAT on food and what the position of the Scottish farmers will be in relation to that? Will the Minister assure us that his Department and the Scottish Office in general will resist such a deplorable tax on food costs, which would be the most monstrous thing to happen to food prices since the corn laws?
I understand the hon. Gentleman's close appreciation and the way in which he follows the doings of the EC, and possibly also of the European Assembly, but Ian Grant has not discussed those matters with me and I do not believe that they are serious propositions.
I am sure that the House and Scottish farmers in general will view with concern the fact that neither my hon. Friend nor my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State is geared to go to the discussions in Brussels. I sincerely hope that, in view of the crisis in relation to beef, cereals and the devaluation of the green pound, my hon. Friend or my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State will take immediate steps to ensure that they go to Brussels to fight their corner for the Scottish farmers.
My hon. Friend puts a great temptation before me to spend many days and nights in Brussels, as I have done on Fisheries Council matters. I have had no indications from the NFU of Scotland or the industry in general that they wish the negotiations in Brussels to be conducted other than on behalf of the United Kingdom by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
If the hon. Gentleman meets the president of the NFU of Scotland, will he take his opinion on the Minister's rather surprising policy declaration the other day, to the effect that any rural school with fewer than three teachers was educationally damaging and should perhaps be phased out?
The hon. Gentleman clearly does not represent a rural constituency and does not understand what farming is about. Next time I meet Ian Grant I might be tempted to ask him what damaging impact the Labour party's proposals to rate agricultural land would have on agriculture.
Did my hon. Friend discuss with the president of the NFU the serious impact on the beef market of the imports of Irish beef? Why does Irish beef continue to enjoy the benefit of our variable beef premium scheme as well as the advantages that accrue to Irish farmers at home?
I understand and sympathise with the feelings of many Scottish beef farmers about the Irish situation, but that is a long-standing arrangement that was negotiated at the time of our entry, along with the Irish Republic, to the EC, which made it clear that the farmers in the Republic would have access to our markets and to the variable beef premium scheme. That is why it has come about.